Sunday, April 4, 2010

The New American Decadence

Scarcely a day goes by when I do not hear about a young person who is putting in extra hours at work to make sure he does his best job. He is not doing it because he has to, but because it's the right thing to do.

Such young people have a strong work ethic; they are not just whiling away the hours on their iPods or texting their ever widening circle of Facebook friends.

Such people do exist. If you belong to an older generation, each time you hear about one you feel a slight rush of optimism. If these anecdotal examples are not enough to make us hopeful about the American future, at least we know that some young people are primed for success in life.

But are they the majority or a minority? Do they represent the value system that is motivating young people? Or are they outliers, culture oddities swimming against a rising tide of cultural decadence?

According to the Pew Research Center, the millennial generation-- those between 18 and 29-- has done away with the old Protestant work ethic. The new generation, just starting out on careers and families, does not believe in hard work, in competitive striving, or in getting ahead because you have earned it. Link here.

The implications are stark. Members of this generation will refuse to put in those few extra hours that spell the difference between career success and terminal mediocrity. In the name of what they calls work-life balance, they refuse to take on the extra project, refuse to work overtime, and believe that it should be granted responsibility regardless of whether or not it has earned it.

Apparently, the millenials are more about fun than work. They want to enjoy life, and they believe that work is an impediment to their pursuit of pleasure.

By and large they are Obama supporters. They like being taken care of; they are not interested in competition or capitalism. They are not interested in competing against the Chinese or the Japanese or anyone else for that matter. They are the bane of the middle class independents who form the base of the Tea Party movement.

Previous generations believed in the good old work ethic. And they are properly horrified to witness the organized sloth that infects the millennials. They do not understand the feeling of entitlement, the failure to show respect, and the will to party. People who worked hard and sacrificed to build the nation now see that the upcoming generation has no real inclination to build on their work. The millennials are about spending the money of the Tea Party generation... to have a good time.

Surely, the millennial anti-work ethic fits well with a socialist economy, or an economy where labor unions are empowered. The millennials seem to want to work for the government, where they can keep their jobs even if they do not work too hard, and where they can enjoy something like tenure and a comfortable retirement on the public dole.

At a time when America is still reeling from the financial crisis, when we desperately need everyone to buckle down and get to work, the millennial generation seems to have decided that it is doing its part by buying the latest electronic gizmo, hunkering down in the parental nest, and waiting for the storm to pass.

Millennials want to be taken care of, even to be coddled. Better yet, they demand to be respected for their lifestyle choice.

Score one for the counterculture, for the educational establishment, for the media elites, and for the therapy culture. Apparently, they have wrung the work ethic out of the major part of the younger generation and have taught them that competition should be avoided. The millennials have learned that competition is bad because it is going to make someone feel bad. They have learned that work is like indentured servitude, to be suffered as little as is humanly possible. Their goal in life seems to be partying until the money runs out, and then... well, they haven't really thought about what comes next.

Welcome to the Chinese century.

The decline and fall of the work ethic is not an overnight phenomenon. For decades now the counterculture has been hard at work destroying the work ethic. They have denounced hard working mid-level executives as organization men, as mindless automatons serving their corporate masters.

But their first line of attack was against the military. By demeaning and belittling and slandering those who serve in the military, they have also convinced young people to keep their distance from martial values.

Culturally speaking, people who serve in the military are involved in constant competitive striving, in gestures of dignity and respect, in selfless sacrifice for their nation, and in a clear and unassailable work ethic.

For those reasons the culture warriors who control the school system and the media hate the military. All of the talk about the injustice of Gitmo, all of the branding of American soldiers as war criminals... had a purpose: to discredit the cultural values that made for great soldiers, great business leaders, and great professionals. And incidentally, to discredit the values that made our country great.

The military ethos was not conducive to fun; it was dangerous; it was not a party culture; it did not show you how to be good at vacation.

The counterculture did not want young people to emulate soldiers. Today, it pays more lip service to the military than it did during the 1960s, but still, it does not young people to be disciplined, to have decorum, and to compete for victory. Not at all.

The counterculture wanted young people to emulate troubadours, the folk singers and rock stars. It wanted them to be like Orpheus, not Achilles or Odysseus. The counterculture replaced war heroes with guitar heroes.

But is it fair to say that the millennials are thereby decadent? They value leisure and parties. They believe that they should be having as much fun as possible and should never sacrifice fun for work. Call them lotus eaters orslothful fun-lovers... but is that really the same as being decadent.

Here I would introduce one caveat. This younger generation may be decadent, but it is really not very good at decadence. There might be a saving grace here if the millennials were trying to excel at decadence.

Sadly, this does not seem to be the case. Their idea of decadence is compulsive texting, being zoned out on their iPods, consuming excessive quantities of alcohol, drugs, and wings, being mesmerized by internet porn, and indulging random, anonymous hook-ups.

In the world of decadence, this just does not cut it. I do not want to come off as a subspecies of moral prig, but, truth be told, hooking-up involves nothing more or less than a couple of drunken adolescents groping each other in the dark. If that's your idea of decadent pleasure, you have a lot to learn. You are a long way from the Story of O or the Marquis de Sade.

In the world of decadence, hooking-up is just plain mediocre sex ... even before the trauma.

It's not so difficult to understand the difference between decadence and a compulsive search for elusive pleasures. Decadent pleasures might easily involve almost all of French cuisine, from escargots to coq au vin. Stuffing your face with Doritos and Big Macs might be an attempt at decadent insouciance, but it is really just an aesthetically unpleasing indulgence.

Do I have to explain that there is a palpable difference between internet porn and a visit to the local bordello. The latter might well count as a perfectly decadent pleasure; the former is a cheap imitation.

Older people have been warning young people against hooking up. They are not doing it because they are hopeless prudes or because they envy the young for getting blind drunk and groping their way to sexual congress. No, they are trying to tell young people-- who have, thanks to the counterculture and the therapy culture, been taught to ignore all adult authority-- that hooking up is not even good sex. It is not even fun.

Say what you will, but Girls Gone Wild does not attain to the status of being the good kind of decadence. It is a cheap imitation of burlesque, not very interesting or engaging. Real decadence is sophisticated, elegant, and aristocratic.

It is one thing to say that the millennial generation has sacrificed the work ethic to run off and search for decadence. As of now it has not even been able to get decadence right.


Roger said...

Excellent post. I would only contend that, just as previous generations, they do work really hard at pursuing and acquiring specific skills that they truly value. Such as video game mastery.

And I would further suggest that by doing so (since most video games are of the first-person shooter genre), they in time become military and martial arts experts, even if glorifying mostly its worst aspect - the raw violence of war.

Other than that, I share your insight 100%. And having in my business the opportunity of choosing my clients and employees, I purposefully avoid the millennial generation for its unmerited sense of entitlement.

I believe that they are in for a very rude awakening later in life, and I hope not to be around much longer to see that happening.

We built America so rich and powerful that it may take many more decades for them to actually suffer from its decadence, however this process has undeniably started about 30-40 years ago. And a significant crisis (major war, etc) can suddenly accelerate it greatly, by consuming the last of our resources and forcing the next generations to face reality.

Unfortunately, history isn't kind to the spoiled offspring of a declining empire. They are typically slow to adapt, and it takes generations in need to revert this mental state.

Good luck to us all.

Anonymous said...

This younger generation may be decadent, but it is really not very good at decadence. There might be a saving grace here if the millennials were trying to excel at decadence.

Wow! That post took a turn I didn't foresee!

This is the kinda thing I read this blog for.

Decadence is an art. Like any art, it only prospers in the face of repression. Without repression, there is no art.

In my military service, I've been fortunate to see the best of the Millenial Generation: they are the footsoldiers of our current war. They are tough, cagey survivors; stalwart, steadfast and reliable. Watch the "X-Games" to see what these young guys (and gals) do.

They want to see What Comes Next. Not a bad bunch, they are groping their way through "The End of History".


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks Roger and Gray for illuminating and very helpful comments.

It is valuable for young people to read what Roger says about hiring or working with millennials. Most people are not going to tell you this, but it certainly true, for reasons of productivity and harmony in the workplace.

As everyone knows this generation is suffering a very high level of unemployment. It would be helpful for them to know that there is something that they might do to overcome it.

The sad part of the Pew survey is that most of these young people do not seem motivated or interested in gaining a work ethic.

Surely, they have the talent and many of the work skills. As Roger points out many have attained to video game mastery. And this surely has value in the economy.

The problem becomes: they are working on something that has nothing to do with video games and they are distracted from their job because they are wasting their time on video games.

As I tried to say, and as Roger and Gray affirm, the millennial generation contains many wonderful young people, focused and hard at work.

For now it seems clearly that this generation is too soft, too used to being taken care of, to go out and work its way out of the current dilemma.

If I may, I would like to express my personal pleasure in the great writing that Roger and Gray have shared with us.

I very much like Roger's sentence: "Unfortunately, history isn't kind to the spoiled offspring of a declining empire."

And Gray's closing: "Not a bad bunch. They are groping their way through "The End of History."

Thanks again, guys.

Susan Walsh said...

Stuart, my sense is that this rampant attitude of entitlement has produced a large number of narcissists. Of course, this affects not only work ethic, but all relationships. I have read that while NPD used to be 75% male, the women are rapidly catching up. I'm afraid we did this generation a great disservice with the "self-esteem" movement - giving out trophies engraved with "Participant."

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Susan. It is indeed a very regrettable state of affairs. No one who has been touting self-esteem should be proud to see that the consequence is more and more young women suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.

I hope readers of this blog take the time to read through some of the excellent work you have been doing on your blog. If you are not personally involved in the college relationship scene, the descriptions of the hook-up culture are going to seem too exaggerated to be real.

If people read through your blog and the comments, it will be eye-opening, to say the least.

It's interesting to think that one of the basic aspects of hooking-up is that there is no work involved, and there is no ethic involved. It can be done effortlessly without showing any respect to the other person.

I would add that real sexual decadence involves real work. Since decadence must be staged, must be costumed, must be choreographed, and must be planned out in advance... the young people who think that they are overcoming sexual repression are in fact sacrificing their own sexual pleasure for an aberrant practice.

Hooking up takes the fun out of sex. As Gray was saying, decadence is an art and art only thrives when there is repression. It exists in the tension between the permissible and the forbidden. If everything is permitted, then you cannot really have decadence.

Part of the pleasure of decadence is the feeling that you are doing something a bit sordid and outside of the norm, but that you are doing it with full knowledge and forethought.

Mike C said...


Arrived at your blog via Susan Walsh's Hooking up blog.

Interesting post with some very valid thoughts but there is another perspective here, and I think it hits on questions of what is the meaning and purpose of life and how does that tie in OR NOT TIE IN to one's career, work, etc. Simplistically, does one "live to work" or "work to live"?

I'll also say for single guys who don't have children the dynamics of what role the workplace plays in one's entire life is somewhat complicated when one's steps back and asks "why am I doing this"?

Yet I recognize the conundrum/paradox here. Both in terms of the workplace and opposite sex relationships, what may be entirely rational at the level of self-interest, ultimately is not positive for society. But does one take a bullet for "society".

I'm a young GenXer with a graduate degree (I probably have more in common with an older Gen Yer then an older GenXer), and right now I simultaneously work a full-time job in corporate America and also have my own side business. My level of effort in the two respective endeavors is completely different. As in all things, incentives drive behavior, and my opinion in general is that incentives in corporate America are not set up to drive high-performance behavior if one is not inclined to do it "for its own sake".

You might find this an interesting read:

Roger said...

Coincidentally, today I received a link that while not proof of the above, is indeed an eye-opening visual confirmation.

or click on my name to see it...

There's No Place Like Om said...

"Surely, they have the talent and many of the work skills. As Roger points out many have attained to video game mastery. And this surely has value in the economy."

Stuart, what value in this economy does winning video games have???

To be fair, some of the young people who are "opting out" do so not to party and play video games all day, but because they have a conscience and realize that the Corporate World is often corrupt and based on falsehoods and shallow externals.

There appears to be a spiritual awakening to more conscious forms of lifestyle and many people I know, of all ages, are looking for alternative ways to support themselves. These ways often include starting their own business: vegan or raw food catering from home, massage from home, yoga classes from home, under the table caregiving, so many things.

People are consciously opting out of the system and choosing to be satisfied with less. Who needs a "hot" car when you can bike to the local food co-op? Who needs to eat out in over-priced restaurants when you can pack and picnic and bike to the beach?

Do I really need the status symbols that Corporate America is telling me I need through their advertising? And do I really need to work for Corporate America?

Let's face it. To work in the Corporate World you have to be a "team player". Who are the people behind this "team" and do I really wanna help them get rich???

I'm not a Gen X-er or Y-er, nor a partier nor a video gamer, but I'll be damned if I'm a corporate "team player"!!!

Now: does anyone wanna come over for some yoga, meditation and delicious decadant organic raw cacao???


Anonymous said...

Let's face it. To work in the Corporate World you have to be a "team player". Who are the people behind this "team" and do I really wanna help them get rich???

I'm not a Gen X-er or Y-er, nor a partier nor a video gamer, but I'll be damned if I'm a corporate "team player"!!!

Now: does anyone wanna come over for some yoga, meditation and delicious decadant organic raw cacao???

Well, Stuart: The comment above certainly illustrates your point....

WV: imove; Fast like a marsupial....


OM Is Where The Heart Is said...

"Well, Stuart: The comment above certainly illustrates your point...."

I think Stuart illustrates YOUR point. I mean come on, the guy is a what - "life coach"?!

Sounds comfy to me.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, guys, for the great discussion.

I recall a few decades ago when people where having the same debates over whether to opt out or to opt in to the corporate world.
It is an individual choice, but it certainly exacts a price.As soon as questions of providing for a family come to the fore, many of the alternatives do not feel as good. And when you see your college friends having more disposable income to enjoy more of the things that you had wanted to enjoy, dropping out does not feel quite so good.

Moreso since, as Roger said, we live in what appears to be a declining empire. Some people seem to have been trying to adapt to lower living standards; others are trying to help the nation fight its way back to prominence and excellence.

Clearly, the nation as a whole has to decide whether it wants to struggle to hold on to its position or whether it wants to settle for being less.

Yet, when a nation, or a person, loses status, it also loses the capacity to experience pleasure. This is fundamental to the decadence equation.

Losing the ability to experience pleasure is a classical symptom of depression. And depression comes about through a loss of status or position.

If it is more difficult to experience pleasure, then more effort will be required to gain less pleasure.

I do not, in other words, think that the choice is between working hard to succeed on the one side, and working less hard, being less successful, and gaining more pleasure on the other.

You do have to wonder how many of the alternative jobs-- from vegan catering to massage therapy to yoga classes-- will be viable in a declining economy. The clientele for many of these jobs is fairly well off. As people have recently noted, yoga classes and caterers are among the first places that people cut back.

I agree with Mike that the question of work/life balance is critically important, especially as it effects relationship and marriage dynamics.

The people who work the hardest, who put in the extra time, who take time away from more pleasurable pursuits, will likely be more successful. And yet, if a man is working extra hours, does that mean that his wife will have to take on more responsibility for the home and children.

In practice, this is what happens. Those in the younger generation who believe-- more power to them-- that they can attain work/life balance with each partner contributing equally to providing for the family and caring for the home may be surprised to see how their lives develop.

In the past people have worked harder because they wanted to advance their careers and to make more money. Now they are working harder because they fear unemployment.

Obviously, the current job situation affects relationship dynamics. In some cases it has effected something like a reversal of gender roles.

Do we really know how elastic these roles are? Surely, women can provide for their families and men are capable of being stay-at-home Dads.

And yet, a recent discussion on the DoubleX blog, which offers a feminist perspective on these matters, suggested that the role of male provider is too deeply ingrained in the DNA to be modified by social exigencies.

And in yesterday's Wall Street Journal Sue Schellenbarger was discussing the problems that these stay-at-home Dads faced as they re-entered the workforce.

The primary difficulty was the abiding stigma that seems still to attach itself to men who do not provide for their families.

It is not very nice to point this out, but it is certainly one of the factors that is going to influence the possibility of achieving a work/life balance.