Last week I read a piece in Forbes about how young people today should not complain about “underemployment,” the phenomenon of working part-time or at a job unsuited to one’s level of education. Instead, says the author, young people should be completely excited to work at minimum wage for an indefinite period of time, to take whatever they can get. The article, helpfully titled Get Over It!, restates, for those who have never heard the myth, that in America you just need to work hard and make your own luck, even if you are starting out with five or ten times as much debt as previous generations.
Today, the nationally-syndicated voice of the mid-20th century, Cal Thomas, tells young people that student debt – which quintupled in America during the last decade, from $200 billion to over a trillion – is really just their personal choice. So young people ought to just stop going into debt for college so much, says a man who went to American University when its tuition was around $1200 per year.
Last year, I got to hear the truly inimitable Thomas Friedman tell a live audience that since CEOs can now give your job to “anybody,” you should study liberal arts, tell the CEO what he’s doing wrong and invent your own job. This will ultimately lead to small town values and prosperity, according to Friedman.
This advice is nonsensical, useless, and if you are in the position of coming out of school as an indebted young person, totally insulting. Rather than indulge the understandable phenomenon of becoming angry at the arrogance and cluelessness of these individuals, I would like to explore is why this is happening. We need to understand the psychological mechanism behind the cognitive failure of our elite opinion makers, because I submit that we will be experiencing much more of it in the years to come. We are entering into a bubble of obsolete advice.
America is experiencing a decoupling of its current experience from its past performance. The America that formed the ideology of its current leadership was one of growth in every dimension – growth of population, growth of productivity, growth of land use, growth of total amount of retail square footage per consumer, growth of incomes and, of course, growth of indebtedness. The America of today is defined by the end of that growth. The generation following the Boomers is half its size, 35 million to their parents’ 70 million. The suburbs cannot grow any more, and the exurbs are already beginning to collapse under the cost of its infrastructure, unsupported as it is by a tax-base corroded by the implosion of the subprime mortgage market. Retail square footage is shrinking. Wages are stagnant, and debts are incurred to their maximum to make up the difference. With Boomers still delaying their retirements to extend the hope of reaching the dream lifestyle promised to them by the Wall-Street-401(k)-Industrial-Complex, jobs are few. Thus, new household formation is also collapsing, since kids going back to school for billions of dollars worth of degrees are rarely in a financial position to start families.
The major media of the world is doing its best to mischaracterize this grand transformation by pointing to the banking collapse of 2008, calling that moment a “recession” and this moment a “recovery.” It is neither. But the recognition of the major changes I described above would be far too disturbing for the sponsors of those media outlets. To effectively sell their products, advertisers must also sell a story to consumers about a grand narrative, one of stability, comfort and entitlement. We don’t just buy paper towels or cars, we also buy the low body fat and comfortable expressions of the mannequins appearing in the advertisements. Accurately describing the end of the consumer lifestyle does not fit well with the demands of the sponsors.
Which brings us to the opinion makers also appearing in such media. These people are in the societal position of writing down their opinions, which are presumably more insightful than those of the guy at your deli making you a sandwich. Ostensibly, these people have technical expertise about how the world works, which qualifies them to hand out their observations in national media. But the world that produced Friedman and Thomas no longer exists. Their expertise and their insight have become completely obsolete. Rather than admit that they no longer possess relevant expertise and set themselves to being curious about the future, these writers are choosing to express advice from a bygone age, one in which they still possess authority. To do otherwise would be far too personally painful. And to a majority of their audience, which formed its ideology in an America than no longer exists, hearing the old myths repeated brings comfort. After all, in the America of the 20th Century, a solid work ethic and an education was enough to bring most people a career that would provide a lifestyle filled with the goods and services of the Middle Class. It was a good system, and it attracted the attention of the world. Who wouldn’t want to go back to that land, however mythical, in their mind?
In fact, the more disturbing the news gets, and the less relevant the old myths are to the current and future situation, the more we will be hearing obsolete advice. And like a medicine man who shouts ever-louder at the heavens as the clouds no longer obey his commands, so will the counsel of our elites become more shrill, strident and hallucinatory. The vast majority of professional intellectuals from the ancien regime will not take kindly to sliding down the societal pyramid toward the level where merely having an opinion guarantees neither income nor notoriety. So we will be the beneficiaries of even more essays about how today’s youth are spoiled; how they should be starting families; how we must rekindle consumer confidence; how it was tough for Boomers too, you know. And this will have an audience that will be much more significant than the quality of the work will justify.
What will remain will be many questions. We have yet to find the answers. How we go about that process will define the society which is about to emerge. It will be difficult. And for those already fatigued of considering such difficult questions, there will be an ample market in palliative advice from years gone by. I simply hope that people can tune out this noise when they search for answers that are more relevant to their future.