Friday, February 12, 2010

Depressing Times, Unlucky Ages, and Self-Esteem

When I read this article on The Atlantic's online site, I can't really say I was surprised.  I mean, I've been commenting on economic hard times for a long time now.  I work in an institution that has been hit hard, and we're still struggling to adapt to the current climate.  And I've long understood that my generation has always lived in an economic reality very different than that of the previous generation.  So, to read in the Atlantic article that "trauma... will remain heavy for quite some time" really isn't anything new.

But it's still kind of depressing.

The article is pretty far ranging.  Racial dynamics, marriage, generational shift, and more are all covered.  I can't begin to comment on it all.  Perhaps the bit that stood out the most to me is the following statement:
...those who had entered the workforce during inhospitable times were still earning 10 percent less on average than those who had emerged into a more bountiful climate. When you add up all the earnings losses over the years... it’s as if the lucky graduates had been given a gift of about $100,000, adjusted for inflation, immediately upon graduation—or, alternatively, as if the unlucky ones had been saddled with a debt of the same size.
Recognizing that the country has been struggling economically for roughly a decade already, about the length of time that I've worked full-time, that would make me one of the "unlucky ones."  The article hits that point even more when it suggests that, "for a sizeable proportion of 20- and 30-somethings, the next few years will likely be toxic."  I'm 35 now.  These guys really aren't trying to be comforting, are they?

Now, I've done the math.  If I take my wages from 10 years ago and compare them to my wages today, I find that I've averaged an increase of 3.5% per year each of those years.  Basically, I'm keeping up with historic inflation.  I'm not really gaining any ground, and it's not like my "starting point" was very high to begin with, but I'm not really losing ground, either.  It could be worse.

Another aspect of the article that struck me is the assertion that a culture of self-esteem is partially to blame:
Twenge notes that self-esteem in children began rising sharply around 1980, and hasn’t stopped since.... Twenge attributes the shift to broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what. As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem—and to decouple it from performance—have become widespread....

Twenge writes that "self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work....  There’s an element of entitlement—they expect people to figure things out for them.”
Neither Twenge nor the article itself go so far as to blame Mister Rogers, as others have done, but there's still something about the criticism that makes me bristle.  I've already agreed that self-esteem without basis is a bad thing, but I'm simply not convinced that "performance" is the best "basis" on which a person should determine their worth.  A person is valuable because that person is a child of God.  That's not to say a person should take pride in mediocrity, or fail to work hard to achieve success, but this paragraph looks to me like an older generation trying to find something to blame in the younger generation that may not have anything to do with the actual cause of the current economic difficulty (which, no doubt, is complicated enough that anyone confronted with this suggestion would realize it's too simplistic, anyway).

Perhaps I bristle at the suggestion that I "expect people to figure things out for [me]."  I don't think I'm doing that.  I'm trying to be as creative as I know how to earn enough money to get by, and to work as hard as I have the strength to do to earn the money my job pays.  If it's not enough, is that my fault for not being imaginitve enough to try something else, or am I not working hard enough, despite putting in a full 40-hour work week at a job that has been a stable source of income in a very unstable climate? 

Perhaps it's the fault of my high self-esteem that I don't think so....

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