It's good news when kids focus on finance over philosophy

Posted: Dec 20, 2006 12:00 AM
It's good news when kids focus on finance over philosophy

p>In the midst of all the disturbing, depressing data in the new Statistical Abstract of the United States just released by the U.S. Census Bureau you can still find nuggets of encouragement and reassurance.

For me, the most significant (and welcome) change noted in this report may involve the altered attitudes of young people. Asked to identify their “primary personal objectives,” 79% of college freshman in 1970 described their goal as “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” By 2005, 75% of the incoming students instead focused on material advancement—saying that “becoming financially very well off” represented their top aim.

Some observers may see in this change a lamentable decline in “idealism.” Why is it a good thing, they will ask, if students concentrate on getting ahead in material terms rather than focusing on philosophical explorations?

For one thing, the presence of more practical, less ruminative collegians reflects the fact that young people from every economic class now attend universities or community colleges. Close to half of all high school graduates now enroll in institutions of higher education (including 41% of traditionally disadvantaged African-Americans) – an increase of more than three-to-one in the percentage of those who pursue advanced learning compared to the famous baby boom generation. When I attended university (Graduating Class of 1969), college still amounted to an elite opportunity for the relatively privileged few: today, young Americans from every economic class and every ethnic group get the opportunity to advance their education (even though they may go deeply in debt to do so).

In other words, the rich kids who represented the bulk of college students in 1970 could afford to concentrate on “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” and to explore the profound glories of meditation, marijuana, the new left, and radical forms of sexual expression. Many of the adventurous activists and idealists and intellectual adventurers of thirty and forty years ago could explore alternative modes of living—engaging in all sorts of trapeze and high-wire stunts-- without worrying about careers or practicalities because they were protected by a safety net provided by Daddy’s money. Today’s students, in a far more fiercely competitive economy and with bigger dept incurred in pursuing their education, naturally focus on their financial future.

That future, by the way, remains brighter than ever, despite misleading propaganda about our standard of living. An unprecedented 70% of Americans now own their own homes and the floor space in new one-family houses has expanded from 1,905 feet in 1990 to 2,227 in 2005 –a growth of 10% in just 15 years. More than half of American households now own stocks and mutual funds—another marker once associated only with the upper class. The 91 million individuals who live in these stock-owning households boast a median age of 51 and a median household income of $65,000.

In other words, one of the reasons that more college students think about making themselves “financially very well off” is that this sort of progress is now possible for an unprecedented number of Americans. In 1970, a total of 35,000 earned professional degrees, with their significant earning capacity; by 2004, the total had increased to 83,000 (42,000 men, 41,000 women).

Finally, a focus on financial progress rather than finding a “philosophy of life” in part reflects the fact that more college freshman than ever before feel they’ve already developed a set of personal values – values that frequently stem from Christian commitment. Professor Alexander Astin of UCLA conducts an annual survey of incoming freshman and for more than a decade he’s noted the increasing religiosity (and corresponding pro-life attitudes) of these new university students. At the same time, enrollment in the nation’s hundreds of Christian colleges and universities has soared at a far higher rate than the growth of student bodies in secular institutions. With more young people describing themselves as religious, it’s not surprising that fewer feel a need to “develop a meaningful philosophy” with the help of their college professors. They’ve learned the philosophy they need at home or in church (or synagogue) and now want to concentrate on the practical, material advancement that helps create wealth for their own families and, ultimately, for society at large. This change may also connect with another dramatic transformation noted in the Statistical Abstract: the sharply falling rate of divorce. With 3.7 divorces per 1,000 individuals in 2004, divorce rates fell to their lowest level since 1970. Among the states, Nevada still claimed the highest divorce rate – but even there the numbers plunged from 11.4 divorces per 1,000 in 1990, to just 6.4 in 2004. In part, the falling divorce rate reflects the decreasing number of marriages, but even among those who make the decision to marry, divorce is significantly less likely to break apart a family than at its peak some 25 years ago.

Baby boomers may continue to boost our generation as uniquely brave, idealistic, even heroic, but the numbers from the Census Bureau suggest that we should stifle some of our characteristic generational pride. Young people today are better educated, more productive, more practical, more religious, and more likely to construct lasting marriages than we were. In a sense, the obsession with “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” served us very poorly indeed: think only of all the phony gurus, and religious cults, and political extremism, and free love experiments, and drug explorations, and destructive radical politics that afflicted the famous ‘60’s generation.

Retrospectively, how many of us still feel proud of these various indulgences and idiocies?

Exactly thirty years ago, I wrote a book called WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO THE CLASS OF ’65?, together with my high school classmate David Wallechinsky. It became a surprise bestseller as one of the first highly skeptical, debunking works that exposed some of the fatuous (and even tragic) excesses of the vaunted “Youth Culture” of the 1960’s. In the course of the book, we came up with a phrase to characterize the privileged kids we profiled – who had graduated from Palisades High, our notoriously posh, upper- middle class California alma mater. To some extent, we wrote that we were all “paralyzed by possibilities” – and that self-indulgent, narcissistic paralysis damaged countless individuals and the nation as a whole.

In that context, it’s hardly admirable that our generation concentrated on philosophical meanderings, nor is it in any sense regrettable that today’s students prefer to focus on economic progress and getting ahead. The kids today, in short, are closer to living and revitalizing the classic American dream, and they are serving the country while advancing themselves.