By Austin B. Hahn
Author’s note: Because the word American can pertain to those who are in Central, North, or South America, people in the United States are referred to as U.S. Americans.
Materialism Although life satisfaction and wealth are modestly correlated below an annual salary of $75,000, there’s little association between long-term happiness and wealth; yet, U.S. Americans own twice as many cars and eat out twice as much as they did 55 years ago (Lilienfeld et al. 430; Gregoire 1). These statistics may come as no surprise to those who shop during the holiday season. In 2012, shoppers spent $59.1 billion on Black Friday alone (Fox). This finding contradicts the long-held belief that the United States does not have the means to help all of its people. While having sufficient financial resources is not an issue, allocating them may be.
The United States has created a materialistic culture. U.S. Americans can’t celebrate holidays, such as Christmas, without purchasing and receiving gifts. On average, people will spend $700 on holiday shopping, which the National Retail Federation estimates to a total of $465 billion, and countless ads will air convincing parents to buy that one “special” gift for their kids (“Made in America”). Children are raised on commercialism. For example, in my experience, when parents ask them if they had a nice Christmas, they’re usually expected to base their answer off of how many presents they received. Parents will spend hundreds of dollars on Christmas. Oddly enough, when their kids get to college, they’ll have no money for them unless they were financially planning ahead which brings us to our next value: education.
Education On average, a college graduate with a 4-year degree owes $29,000 in student loan debt (Holland; White). From 2004-2014, student loan debt rose by 56 percent (Camera). This financial burden has affected economic and social life in the U.S. Data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that “the birth rate among women aged 20 to 29 is now at a record low, and has been declining since at least 2008″ (Holland). A report from CNBC also revealed that the homeownership rate for U.S. Americans under the age of 35 dropped from 43.3% in 2005 to 34.6% in 2015 (Holland). According to the National Association of Realtors, 23 percent of first-time buyers said they were having difficulty saving for a down payment, and 57 percent within this group said student debt was preventing them from saving (Holland). While these statistics are alarming, the issue of debt education is not new.
In 2006, Jeffrey J. Williams, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, noted in his article “Debt Education: Bad for the Young, Bad for America,” that student loan debt for undergraduates had more than doubled from 1992, when it was $9,200, to $18,900 in 2002. Political science professor at Queens College New York Andrew Hacker and New York Times columnist and associate professor at Columbia University Claudia Dreifus have cited several reasons for the skyrocketing cost of college in their 2010 publication Higher Education? One of them was presidential compensation. Between 1992 and 2008, presidential salaries more than doubled while “some rose closer to threefold” (Hacker and Dreifus 119). For example, Stanford’s president went from getting paid $256,111 to a whopping $731,614 while the pay of NYU’s president increased from $443,000 to $1,274,475 (Hacker and Dreifus 119).
Among other reasons for the rising cost of college listed by Dreifus and Hacker include: funding colleges’ legal expenses, paying for athletic departments, extravagant amenities and tenured professors’ salaries, and to attract applicants (Hacker and Dreifus). Dreifus and Hacker noted that “behavioral economics posits that when people feel what’s being asked is too low, they suspect something might be wrong with the product” (Hacker and Dreifus 116). In other words, people associate a higher price tag with a higher quality of education. Shortly after Pennsylvania’s Ursinus College increased its fees by 17 percent, enrollment had grown by a third four years later (Hacker and Dreifus 116). Perhaps we can conclude that soaring tuition rates are, in part, due to the public’s expectation that money equates with quality, or is this presumption because of how market capitalism socializes us to think and how colleges advertise themselves?
Many U.S. Americans still value education. A survey conducted by Discover Student Loans found that 95 percent of parents believe that “college is somewhat or very important to their child’s future” (Holland). However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that adults between the ages of forty-five and fifty-four with an average income of $81,884 “spend $3,244 on eating out,” yet, personal expenditures for education totaled $2,012 (Hacker and Dreifus 130). As Hacker and Dreifus point out, this “raises questions about how many parents are writing five-digit checks for their children” (130). In a 2009 College Board survey, twenty-five percent of respondents, who had the most savings, said their parents had put less than $20,000 aside (Hacker and Dreifus 130). Even more shocking, Hacker and Dreifus claim that Princeton parents who make $125,000-$150,000 now have to pay “only half of their full bill,” and while colleges state “that gifts support scholarships,” six-figure parents are often the recipients of such contributions (130).
Taking all of the aforementioned into consideration, our education system is creating an entire generation of indentured students. Many graduates will go on unable to pay off their student loans. Meanwhile, as the cost of higher education rises, individuals from less affluent backgrounds who possess artistic, executive, or scientific talent will turn away. The incoming generation is being financed by loan companies at the expense of what goods and services they could produce in the future. Despite numerous reports and statistics on the burden of student debt, the federal government doesn’t seem to care, or otherwise a bill making higher education more affordable would have been passed long ago.
Baby boomers and Generation X have been fed a poisonous cultural narrative by the media that millennials are lazy and carry a sense of “entitlement” as a way to pass down blame for the economic circumstances we are in today. Consequently, they’re angry, and they’ve become convinced that putting their tax dollars towards education for our young people wouldn’t be a worthwhile investment. As our leaders continue to find someone to blame, tuition rates are exponentially increasing and fewer people can afford to attend college. An entire generation is on the verge of financial collapse, and little to nothing is being done to mitigate the effects of debt education. When will policy makers pay attention? How about taking out a portion of the military budget and allocating it to education? We cannot expect to have productive citizens who will contribute to society when they’re solely focused on paying back their debt. An overhaul of the education system is long overdue.
Celebrity worship U.S. culture idolizes the rich and famous, and the media industry waists time reporting on their lives instead of focusing on actual news such as Supreme Court decisions, medical breakthroughs, or the latest advancements in technology. Celebrities are expected to stand in as role models for parents who don’t want to raise their kids. In addition, the famous are constantly put under scrutiny by social media. For example, in July of 2015, when Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj got into a dispute on Twitter, it became a national news story. There were reports from various media outlets, including CNN and Time (Chan; Grossman).
While these stories may sell and generate profit for media conglomerates, what about the voice of the poor or lower middle class? I never heard about them as a child who frequently watched television, and I still don’t today as an adult. From my point of view, excessive media coverage on celebrities has prevented us from addressing real issues: poverty, racial injustice, rising college tuition rates, the cost of healthcare, and unemployment. Celebrity worship as a cultural plague must be transformed into admiration without becoming obsession so that we can direct our attention to finding the root causes of our domestic problems and work towards creating solutions.
Perfectionism When I went to school as a child, teachers often taught me only one way how to do something. If I did anything differently on an assignment, project, quiz, or a test, they would mark me as wrong. Sometimes I was completely incorrect, and, at other times, I was just experimenting with my creativity. Either way, I felt discouraged by my teachers. They would deduct points off my grade, marginalize me and other children by putting us in a “lower level” group, and reprimand me. Eventually, I became fearful of taking risks, which also reflects in my adulthood today, and I stifled my creativity.
I valued perfectionism at the expense of learning from failure. Unfortunately, I don’t believe my experience is unique. My generation was taught that everyone makes mistakes, and we suffer the consequences for them, but we were told that’s okay. In retrospect, how can a person feel permitted to make an error if they’re expecting to suffer a consequence for it? According to oxforddictionaries.com, the definition of consequence is “a result or effect of an action or condition.” For years, I associated this word with a punishment when, in actuality, it refers to the outcome of something. Because of the context that it was used in, I thought it implied something negative. As a result, I didn’t want to make a mistake because I thought enduring a consequence meant that I would be penalized and that I did something bad.
We are inhibiting the development of our children’s intellectual capacities by punishing their mistakes. We are striving for an unattainable image of greatness while killing innovation. Our culture needs to reassess how we handle mistakes and to see them as blessings in disguise that provide us with learning experiences rather than being ashamed of them. If our nation is to continue making progress in engineering, medicine, technology, and in other domains, then we must grant ourselves the freedom to make mistakes in order to create. The pursuit of perfection is squandering our opportunities for ingenuity.
Respect We tell our youth to respect authority figures, their elders, and even people who are considered “legends.” What does this mean, though? Everyone starts from the bottom somewhere and has to put in the work in order to gain authority in a specified field. Growing old is part of the life cycle that we go through if we’re lucky enough to experience it; it’s not an accomplishment. Furthermore, what makes someone a “legend”? Is it someone who’s constantly under the spotlight like Kim Kardashian? Is it a person who made remarkable humanitarian efforts like Mother Teresa? Is it somebody who has achieved incredible career heights such as Michael Jackson or Robert J. Oppenheimer? Regardless of whatever constitutes a “legend”, they all live and die like other people; they’re just portrayed in the media more.
Respect, as a U.S. American value, needs to be reformed. The status quo has been to treat someone with respect based on perceived superiority. Consequently, our children, who go on to become our future leaders, grow up thinking that once they achieve a certain status, treating their subordinates poorly is socially acceptable. While this approach may have worked in the days of “do as I say, not as I do” and for the hierarchical structure of the industrial era, it has outlived its purpose in the new age of global relations and social networking. We need to teach our young that respect is earned by how you treat people and not because of age, executive power, or occupation title.
Hard work U.S. Americans pride themselves on working hard, and, coming from the perspective of someone who was born and raised in the United Sates, they’re exhausted. They kill their health by working long hours, leaving little to no time for leisure activity, and resort to eating fast food since they’re too tired to cook for themselves. Furthermore, “the United States is the only developed country [in the world] that does not have a minimum number of paid vacation days and holidays for its workers” while countries such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have twenty-five (Croteau and Hoynes 238). The United States needs to come out of the dark ages when their ancestors had to work painstaking hard for survival; we don’t live in that time anymore.
U.S Americans also adhere to the notion that a person’s suffering or rise in status is a result of their work ethic. If someone is struggling, then they should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” or rely on themselves to better their life. However, they fail to acknowledge that circumstances that are beyond someone’s control can either enhance or undermine their opportunities to obtain emotional and financial security. Sociological context, comprising of economic, political, and social factors must be taken into consideration. For instance, growing up poor in a household plagued by domestic violence might interfere with a child’s ability to concentrate in school. Consequently, this situation may affect their overall academic performance, thus, limiting their chances to pursuit a higher education, resulting in constrained career options.
The value of hard work and its merits need to be reevaluated. What is it anyway, and why do we boast about it? What might be hard work to one person could be just work to another. What’s more, working hard to further one’s own interests is not admirable; it’s been done throughout the course of human history. If someone’s working diligently to achieve their aims at the expense of others’ well-being, then they’re not benefiting society. We need to examine personal motives before giving appraisal. On a sociocultural note, we must discard the belief that someone’s income equates with how hard they work. Firefighters, hotel cleaners, and teachers work hard, but they don’t get paid millions of dollars to dribble a ball or to sing into a microphone.
The idea of the hardworking self-made man or woman is no longer applicable in the twenty-first century. Unlike previous generations, millennials can’t pretend that their achievements are a result of their personal efforts while neglecting those who contributed to their success. With broad trends such as economic deterioration, outsourcing of jobs overseas, and student debt, working hard is not enough; making professional connections is paramount. We need to start working smarter, not harder.
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