Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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Yesterday my neighbor told me an interesting story. She noticed that a girl in the grade-school class that she teaches wasn’t bringing a sack lunch to school. The hungry child explained that they didn’t have a refrigerator, so her parents didn’t keep ingredients for a sack lunch. The teacher immediately started a fund-raising campaign that culminated when the school gave the needy family its very own refrigerator. The girl brought a sack lunch to school for two days, and then missed an entire week of school—after which she returned to class, but without a lunch. When asked why she was no longer brown-bagging it, she explained that her parents had sold the refrigerator and with the proceeds had taken the family to Disneyland!
When you hear stories like this you want to climb on your high horse and lecture anyone who would trade off their children’s health for a couple of days of fun, but the more helpful response is to ask: Why would someone do that? Why would a rational human being trade off the conveniences and utility of owning their very own refrigerator for one week’s pleasure?
As I thought about living a life almost as if there is no future (even if the future is merely a few days away), I turned to my own upbringing. As a child I was exposed to dozens of stories that taught the same message: How you act today affects how you’ll live tomorrow and into the distant future. As one of those messages, I was instructed to be the hard-working and frugal ant, not the silly grasshopper who partied during the harvest only to suffer through winter. Popular movies of my parents’ era (which were shown on TV to my generation) were made by directors such as Frank Capra, who told us in his award-winning movie It’s a Wonderful Life that true happiness comes from prudent living. Heroes go without in order to secure their future. Heroes worry about how today’s actions might affect the person they become. I watched dozens of such Capra-esque morality plays and they all sang the same tune—behave wisely today so you don’t have to suffer tomorrow.
But there are more forces at work here. A changing economy, a growing interest in being “cool,” and massive changes in technology have transformed each successive generation into a very different populace from those of Frank Capra’s era—one that cared deeply about the future in general and financial security in specific. For instance, in today’s society, homes are plugged into TVs that pump 20,000 half-minute commercials into every TV-watching child’s head every single year. These ads don’t teach frugality or temperance or anything long-term. Instead they argue that you need whatever they’re selling and you need it now.
Couple this rampant live-for-the-moment consumerism with a social movement that suggests that being snide, hip, and cool is far more sophisticated than preaching what is right, or helpful, or prudent—and it’s easy to see why so many people today live as if there is no tomorrow. In contemporary movies, writers frequently decouple behavior from consequence—because cool people live for the moment. For instance, if you commit crime—but against a nasty person—and if you’re handsome, and glib, and hip while you’re doing it, it’s okay to be a criminal. Don’t worry, a life of crime won’t ruin your life or have a negative influence on the person you become. Capra’s movies may have been corny by today’s standards because they dared to teach something by linking behavior to consequence, but they didn’t lead to a people who live so much for the moment that they routinely put their future at risk.
TV is no better. It often teaches us that the good life consists of sitting around with friends, flirting and playing—and nobody has to work very much in order to afford outlandishly upscale New York apartments. Plus by using their magical clocks, the main characters are able to spend all of their perceivable time goofing off with their friends, yet somehow still have time to meet people and have amazingly active and glamorous dating lives as well as successful careers. How does that work? It’s all part of decoupling action from consequence. Selfish and unrealistic lifestyles lead to fun—not the heartache and deprivation that would likely ensue.
I suppose airing a show or two that creates a fantasy world isn’t all that harmful, but when you combine the unrelenting and selfish messages of commercialism with the TV and Movie mantra of “what you do today won’t affect tomorrow” across dozens of ads and countless shows, it creates a very different view from the common doctrine espoused by “The Greatest Generation.” Given the massive changes in what we read and view, it’s little surprise that you can readily find people who have no sense of their role in their own history—or of history at all for that matter. If you repeatedly tell people to live for the moment and refuse to link behavior with consequence, you create a people who one day are going to have to pay the piper, and it’s not going to be pretty.
My generation of boomers suffers from a case of short-term-ism just as much as the generations that are dutifully following. Only a third of my peers (who are just now turning 63) say they have set aside enough money to continue their lifestyle into retirement. Two-thirds are going to have to make uncomfortable adjustments. Many are clueless as to what they’re going to do. It’s as if my classmates expected that one day (way off in the distant future) when they gave up their salaries, the retirement fairy would step in and take care of them. With tens of thousands of people stepping up to these circumstances every single day, the retirement fairy is going to get a hernia trying to carry their load, and their children are going to feel the pain.
And it’s not merely individuals who are taking this careless tactic. Congress has been writing rubber checks for years and voters have not risen up en masse to throw out the scoundrels for selling out their personal savings or dooming their children to who knows what. The business world has been equally culpable. For years American executives have been stereotyped as having a precariously short-term orientation. And it’s largely true. Numerous executives have done whatever they can to maximize short-term profits in order to bolster their own bonuses and retirement accounts—only to put their companies in grave peril. One company located just up the street from me promised the president a million dollar bonus if he hit a certain sales number. He cut pricing, sold thousands of units at a loss, had customers warehouse the product, banked his fat bonus, retired, and nearly took his company into bankruptcy.
As we continue to fan the flames of a buy-it-now culture, mock all things value based, and lose our sense of history in the process, it’s little surprise that our national savings rate has dropped from 7 percent in the 50s (behind Germany at 12 percent and Japan at 17 percent) to an embarrassing low of 1 percent. And it’s not simply because we don’t have the money. We had the money, but we spent it. The third of my generation that is financially prepared for retirement didn’t earn more than others, they simply spent less. They went without, set aside money, invested well, and became “The Millionaire Next Door.”
I hope today’s harsh financial and social circumstances will help us take a long, hard look at what’s been going on for the last half century. And as we do, we need to acknowledge any role we’ve played in causing both our economic and our social woes. Some can look back with pride. We have plenty of “ants” living among us and I applaud them for their self-discipline and integrity. But the grasshoppers have to come to terms with what they really want.
Parents, business executives, and community leaders alike are going to have to find a way to say “no” to buying everything today. They’re also going to have to get used to teaching the long-term values of self-restraint and making choices with tomorrow in mind. The future desperately needs advocates, cheerleaders, and spokespeople—and we’re all going to have to take a turn. That means we’re going to have to act and feel corny once in a while. We can’t remain critical, glib, cool, and above the fray, and hope to turn things around. Like it or not, if we want a wonderful life (all the way to the end), we’re going to have to embrace Frank Capra.