Tao of the Zentropist

July 8, 2010

The “Scott Nicholson Syndrome” – A Glimpse Into American Entitlement

The New York Times recently published an article entitled, “American Dream is Elusive for New Generation” which garnered 60 pages worth of comments, the vast majority of which were hostile, tinged with class envy or hints of the author’s own unrealized or otherwise unfulfilled dreams, and largely symptomatic of the direction that our society is headed.

Scott Nicholson, the hapless subject of the piece, is a 24 year-old college graduate, whose expectations that his undergraduate degree from Colgate and “family connections” from a privileged upper-class Northeastern background (which have apparently failed to materialize into much thus far) would enable him to waltz into a high-paying executive-level “career-track” position despite an apparent lack of work history have been brutally dashed. Whether he realized it or not (although it’s hard to believe the journalist and editors did not realize the ensuing maelstrom that would result), his self-absorbed, self-pitying statements and the attitudes expressed by his well-meaning but equally naïve family only served to paint him as the poster child for unrealistic expectations coupled with massively overinflated ego and sense of self-worth, notions of class privilege, and a disconnection with the harsh realities of the massive global recession.

And I’m willing to bet, he and his family are hardly alone in this.

FORMAL EDUCATION PROVIDES OPPORTUNITIES – IF YOU LEVERAGE THEM

Perhaps one of the harder lessons for people to learn is that while formal education certainly has value and can open doors, not all education is equal nor does education automatically translate into a lucrative and stable long-term career. As many of the respondents observed, certain undergraduate majors tend to be more “marketable” than others, although those that believe that an undergraduate math, science, engineering or business/accounting degree will guarantee employment are also deceiving themselves.

Quite frankly, many of us in hiring positions have encountered prospective employees with BA or BS degrees that are inarticulate, lack demonstrable critical reasoning skills, or are incapable of clearly expressing themselves in written communication. I found it ironic that while some respondents were quick to denigrate “liberal arts” degrees (poor Scott majored in Political Science, which in the interest of full disclosure was part of my own major, and history), such degrees can and should teach valuable critical thinking and analytical skills, reading comprehension, as well as the ability to communicate clearly in both verbal and written forms. Given the fact that some of Scott’s most vocal critics misstated information provided in the article or simply made assumptions that the reported “facts” did not necessarily support, these skills are clearly lacking in more mature adults as well.

WHAT A FOUR-YEAR DEGREE ACTUALLY TEACHES

Many people seem to believe that 4-year institutions are in the business of teaching technical skills and/or trades – well this is simply not the case. Given the pace at which technology evolves, at best college is a time to absorb and hone skills which may be useful and applicable right now, but could very well be obsolete (or otherwise in lesser demand) just a few years down the road. However, what education ideally should teach is the necessity of maintain a lifelong interest in learning, whether this is self-directed, obtained from an accredited institution, or simply obtained via on-the-job training from an organization or mentor. There is little doubt that given the proliferation of colleges and universities, not to mention online degree programs, that the value and worth of a BA/BS degree in general is in decline, that standards do not necessarily measure up in many schools to what was expected a few decades ago, and that increasingly, obtaining post-graduate education is a necessity to either fulfill a checkbox on the HR forms of corporations hiring for better-paying positions or to gain experience and credentials to support their own entrepreneurial ventures.

Meanwhile many skilled “blue collar” workers (e.g. trade jobs such as plumbing, electricians, etc.), if they are skilled at running a business and able to compete in their given location, are able to carve out more solid and stable careers than those that aspire to “white collar” work. These services are also, for the moment, less susceptible to off-shoring practices, although they too are dependent upon having a customer base that can afford their fees. Such a realization hopefully validates the notion that all honest labor is admirable and beneficial, and that there is no shame in earning a living by getting one’s hands dirty, as opposed to pecking at a computer keyboard, shuffling paper or providing “knowledge” to other people.

LIES OUR ELDERS (AND SOCIETY) TOLD US

Here’s a news flash. Every generation lies to some extent to the one following it. That’s just the nature of human behavior. Some of these lies are well-intentioned ones, or lies of ignorance or omission. While age may bring wisdom, young fools / charlatans / malingerers sometimes age into older fools / charlatans / malingerers as well, if they don’t accumulate wisdom, maturity and humility along the way.

Perhaps Scott Nicholson and those of his ilk are an extreme example of the narcissism and lack of self-awareness that can arise when well-meaning parents insulate their children from the realities of the world until adulthood, never teaching them the value of money, or to realize how privileged they are relative to so many others. I understand – a lot of people have “played by the rules,” getting an education (and in many cases incurring significant debt to do so), working hard, not causing trouble for others, only to realize how the financial system is gamed by some to enrich themselves obscenely, which in many cases (although not always), leaves others squabbling over diminishing pieces of the pie.

Of course, it should not be overlooked that many people, in creating wealth for themselves (often by taking significant risk, such as starting and operating their own businesses), help build wealth for others by creating jobs, providing valuable services or products, or creating even more opportunities for other businesses to address.

But let’s get this straight. The world owes none of us anything. Life is hard for everyone – relatively speaking, of course. Some face financial challenges, some emotional, some physical and some psychological (or a combination thereof), and sometimes these challenges are setbacks which we overcome through persistence, dogged determination and an unwillingness to quit, while others are of a more permanent and lasting nature. But keep this in mind – the only time we fail completely is when we stop trying, and we will all taste disappointment in life, but it is up to us to imbue it with meaning.

WHAT’S YOUR ENTITLEMENT, JACK?

In closing, I’d also like to observe that while it’s easy to take potshots at what we perceive as entitlement thinking, many of us are loath to admit to our own. Planning on collecting on Social Security? How about Medicare? Senior citizen discounts? Do you actually pay federal income taxes or are you one of the millions of Americans that don’t qualify under the current system. As of 2007, the top 10 percent income bracket (essentially those with an AGI of $113K plus) paid more than 71 percent of all federal income tax collected. Now I realize that most Americans consider an income above $100K to be pretty extraordinary, but depending on where one lives, it may be less extravagant than you might think (e.g. many people forget that surgeons, most of whom do NOT earn more than six figures and require education and training that delays such rewards until age 30 or so, pay six-figure malpractice premiums) and the chasm between those earning even mid or high six-figure salaries and those in the seven and eight figure salary range (or above) is arguably as wide as those getting by on mid five-figures and the $100K plus club.

So while it’s clear that some commentators on this article and Scott Nicholson’s situation and attitude in general took undisguised glee in expressing their Schadenfreude, it’s also clear that many fail to understand just how dysfunctional and illusory our consumer-oriented culture has become. Sure, some Baby-Boomers have been able to make hay in the generally economically vibrant decades of the latter half of the 20th Century, but many of their cohort either failed to plan properly for their retirements (if they want to maintain their pre-retirement lifestyles) or thanks to the near financial meltdown that began taking shape late in 2007, have seen their 401-K’s plummet or are counting on pensions which may very well be underfunded and may evaporate once exposed to the light of day.

What remains to be determined is whether we as a nation will continue to delay making the necessary sacrifices and adjustments to right our ship of state and crack down on the irresponsibility, selfishness and criminal malfeasance in some quarters which has created so much hardship, or if we will surrender to an “inevitable” decline which could very well end in violent upheaval once we can no longer borrow money to forestall the massive financial, societal and natural resource intensive debts that we have collectively incurred.

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder and principal of Black Rock Consulting, a boutique management and communications consultancy based in Los Angeles offering strategic planning, project management, marketing and writing services. Feel free to call us at 310.598.6161 to schedule a confidential discussion of your needs. Initial consultations are FREE OF CHARGE and WITHOUT FURTHER OBLIGATION.

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February 23, 2010

The Coming American (R)Evolution

Part One of a Planned Multi-Part Series…

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The time has come to tackle a subject which many pundits, opinion-makers, and ideologues across the political spectrum have been speaking of with increasing vitriol and divisiveness, which is the fracturing of the veil of prosperity and upward mobility which has been the hallmark of the American Dream for generations, forged in the fires of our Founding Revolution gaining independence from Great Britain.

We’re in trouble, folks, and pretending otherwise is foolish and will only postpone the inevitable. The United States has become a massive debtor nation, and an increasingly large percentage of the population in what is the “richest, most powerful nation on earth” are living lives of increasing desperation, at least so far as our traditional American standards and expectations have defined. While politicians dither and in many cases, cynically manipulate the system out of personal interest and beholden to those that control their purse strings, the physical and educational infrastructure of this country crumbles, executives with little concern beyond the next quarter’s bottom line make decisions with implications that impact the lives of millions, our population grows even more anaesthetized and disengaged as it gorges on a diet of 24/7 “info-tainment” and mindless lowest common denominator “reality” fare, and meanwhile, we engage in conflicts which on many levels may be necessary, but with a tiny fraction of the population bearing the actual burden of the fighting.

Like all civilizations before us, we have reached a crossroads and the choices (difficult as they may be) which we make now will define us for eternity. Even if we do nothing, which is what many in positions of power seem compelled or resigned to do, we have made a choice, and the repercussions of our inaction will echo throughout time as we slide into the chasm which has engulfed other once great peoples. If recorded history teaches us one thing, it is that human nature does not change, and throughout the world lie hints that contrary to the widely accepted view that mankind has technologically evolved over time, save for periods of “back-sliding,” we operate under no assurance that this is a constant or that we are somehow immune to the pressures and choices which have destroyed empires and nations that had cohesively endured far longer than our 234 year run thus far.

REVOLUTION OR EVOLUTION? WHICH WILL IT BE?

As I see it, we face very stark choices right now, which will likely become more restricted as time goes on and we slip deeper into the quagmire we’ve created for ourselves. The United States as a whole can seek to evolve, to apply the enormous potential of our creative and business minds to adjust our course, to make certain sacrifices which may be unpleasant in the short-term, but which are far more preferable to what we could face in the mid or long-term if we do not take such action. Or we can continue to allow the fear, hopelessness and steadily building anger which is permeating many sectors of our population to build, until it finds release in revolution, which even in its non-violent expression leads to fractures and rifts in which the rights of dissenters to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – as well as the rule of law – may be compromised as passions inflame action and desperation yields to extreme agitation.

Before I get too much farther, I should clearly state for the record that the thought of our present circumstances leading to violence, organized or not, is deeply troubling and not a course that I wish to see inflicted upon this nation. Yet I cannot help but observe that circumstances are staging themselves nicely for the emergence of demagogues on either extreme of the political spectrum, and I do not deceive myself into believing that right-wing or left-wing extremism cannot take hold in the United States. I believe it is the duty of the vast majority of us who occupy positions somewhere in the amorphous and not easily defined “middle,” that understand that we can find solutions if we bravely face and acknowledge reality, to try to prevent a schism which would destroy the very promise and noble ideals that America was founded upon.

OUTLINING THE STAKES – THREATS FACING THE STABILITY OF THESE UNITED STATES

In order to present solutions to any problem, it is first necessary to acknowledge that the problem exists, to understand what the repercussions are if the problem is not addressed, and to seek to find solutions that will eliminate the problem as an ongoing concern or at the very least, minimize the impact that the problem will have on the future.

Unlike many op-ed writers in many “papers of record,” at the very least I feel compelled to try to offer possible solutions to these problems in upcoming postings. Rather than be yet another “doom and gloom” naysayer crying that the sky is falling, I believe it is incumbent to try to motivate others to seek solutions while we still have palatable options, or before we are backed into a corner individually and collectively and the only choices remaining are poor or unthinkable.  I can’t promise that my answers are the best ones available, but I hope that they are better than silence or the monumental and borderline criminal obfuscation and collusion with special interests engaged in by the majority of our current crop of politicians.

As I see it, there are seven vital issues facing us right now, some of which are interlinked, which must be addressed in a coherent and forward-looking manner:

  • Unemployment and Underemployment – Why the U6 Number Matters
  • Crumbling Physical and Technological Infrastructure Heading Towards Obsolescence
  • Energy Dependence on Foreign Oil
  • Geo-Politics and Global Security – Why Radical Interpretations of Islam are a Threat
  • Spiraling Healthcare Costs and Government Entitlements – There is No Free Lunch
  • Underfunded Pension Liabilities – The Nasty Surprise Awaiting Many Future Retirees
  • Education and Lifelong Learning – Ignorance is a Choice with Serious Consequences

Each of these issues is of significant scope and pressing need to present formidable challenges on their own; the fact that we are facing these in a confluence of bad timing due to years of inaction, recklessness and lack of political will to deal with these before they escalated to pending or current crisis status is most unfortunate.

WHY FREEDOM IS PREFERABLE TO SLAVERY IN ANY FORM

Many Americans would do well to remember Gerald Ford’s admonition that, “The government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.” I do not believe that more government is the answer to the problems facing us – our government is bloated and inefficient as it is, and while government can work in partnership with the private sector to help facilitate solutions, with rare exception has government ever proven to operate more efficiently or productively than profit-motivated private industry. It’s not that Capitalism as a concept is fatally flawed or outdated; however, unbridled and unregulated capitalism does concentrate wealth, and correspondingly, power, in the hands of a few and if we rely on a sense of benevolence or noblesse oblige from some of today’s oligarchs (little better than the 19th Century’s Robber Barons) raised with little sense of a moral compass or civic responsibility greater than themselves, we are really in trouble.

While it may be true that it’s hard in modern society to be completely self-reliant and to one degree or another, as individuals and nations we are all inter-connected, this does not mean that we cannot strive to do better. For all the pessimism and bad news that the 24/7 news cycle seems to feed upon, every day witnesses all too often unheralded acts of kindness, compassion and heroism from ordinary people that are willing to put their money, principles and sometimes even their lives on the line to help others.

Freedom is a scary proposition, because freedom entails risk, but ultimately, we can only trade our freedom for the illusion of security while voluntarily and cowardly slipping on the shackles and fetters that enable us to become little more than serfs to the minority in power at any given time or place in history.

In my next posting I’ll delve deeper into the employment situation in America, taxation and our faltering primary and secondary educational system…

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder of Black Rock Consulting and the blog “Tao of the Zentropist.” In the interest of full disclosure, he is a political independent that deeply admires President Teddy Roosevelt and believes in the principles of limited government by, of, and for the people; increased personal responsibility and accountability to society;, and enlightened regulation of free market economies to safeguard the financial interests and livelihood of the majority. He believes that the Bill of Rights enumerates individual rights and that it’s specious and self-serving to selectively claim that any (e.g. The Second Amendment) are meant collectively only. He feels that people’s personal lives ought to remain personal and that what goes on between consenting adults, so long as no one else is getting hurt, is neither the business of the state nor of anyone else. While he believes in international cooperation and free and fair trade, he also believes that nation-states and their populations have the right to sovereign and secure borders and the right to self-defense, which extends to the individual level as well. And finally, he believes that as flawed as it may be at times, representative democracy is the best means of governance yet devised by Man and those that threaten it are a clear and present danger to peace, freedom and any hope of global stability now or in the future.

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