Generation Z – Back to Square One?

Two weeks ago, the Beloved Spouse and I rewarded ourselves for the considerable effort of having hosted a large family gathering over Christmas by slipping away for a week of relaxation and recreation in a much warmer place. Five of the seven days of our vacation were spent as part of a professionally managed group adventure featuring daily cycling, hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and/or paddle-boarding. Beside us, there were eight other paying participants, mostly couples or parent/adult child pairs; in addition to the sporting adventures, we all stayed at the same two resorts and ate meals together. Everybody got along well and as far as I could tell, had a marvelous time.

Among the other participants were a retired bond trader of roughly my age and one of his adult sons, a graduate student in health statistics. The Beloved Spouse and I took immediate likings to both and spent a good bit of time with them.

At the celebratory group dinner on the final evening, I found myself sitting next to the younger of these two. He and I had gotten along particularly well all week – I had been impressed by the young man’s considerate nature, intelligence and (to my eyes) uncommonly mature temperament for a man of his age – and, since he and I were the two most eager cyclists in the group, we had pushed each other on the week’s longest ride, which had taken place that morning.

Our conversation turned to his possible career paths after he finishes with graduate school this spring, as contrasted with my experiences in a life in business.

What first struck me as surprising during that conversation was that – in spite of his having a father who had had a successful Wall Street career, and with whom he was obviously quite close – not only was this wonderful young man not thinking about any sort of private sector opportunities, he seemed to instinctively recoil from any position in which he might be expected to be motivated by, or that was funded via others pursuing, the profit motive. He looked surprised and intrigued when I said that I was proud of being a businessman. It looked to me as if he had absorbed all the signals that our high culture now sends that private sector work is based on greed and exploitation while public sector work is nobility incarnate.

I first challenged some of the assumptions underlying this perspective – all-too-common among young people who, like him, are recent graduates of prestigious liberal arts colleges – by raising the topic of the now-wildly-popular $15 minimum wage. I explained that such laws are fundamental infringements on his personal freedoms and mine, an idea that made him shake his head in wonder.

To illustrate my point, I noted that such a law might result in my deciding that I couldn’t afford to hire him and thereby keep him from having the freedom to say yes or no to an opportunity to work at, say, $12 an hour instead of having no job at all. Maybe $12 would be better than nothing, and provide him with an opportunity to learn a trade and become worth more than the ostensibly low starting salary. What right did anyone else have to tell me that I couldn’t make that offer, or him that he couldn’t take it?

Broadening my point, I went on to point out that every single thing in the room in which we were sitting, the room itself, our food, our clothing, our phones and the tour we were on were all produced by people working for profit – and indeed, that such was the case with basically everything he could think of.

Not only that, but the providers of every one of those goods and services was in a competitive market where their livelihoods depended on offering better products or lower prices than their rivals: that dynamic explained the sumptuousness of our surroundings. Every one of those suppliers was aware that he or she might lose out next time, and that knowledge drove quality and innovation.

Businesspeople are all servants, I explained. Each one has to offer better products or prices to his customers, better wages and/or working conditions to his employees and better prospective returns to his shareholders than are available elsewhere – they have to simultaneously serve many constituencies. Indeed, when a business doesn’t meet any one of these tests it will fail – the ultimate accountability to others.

I talked about the role of finance – his father’s former business – in the allocation of capital – investing in good ideas, giving up on failed ones. Bankers and bond traders make decisions that in a subtle but vitally important ways shift society’s limited capital toward enterprises that produce more of what people actually want – what they will willingly pay for.

Finally, I pointed out that what distinguishes a free market from socialism is that capitalism is based on free choices, made by millions of individuals acting in their own interests. Buyers and sellers must each agree that every deal – wages, say, or the purchase and sale of goods – improves the position of both, or it won’t happen. Socialism, in contrast, is based on using the coercive power of the state to limit choices to whatever is deemed appropriate by the elites who, in practice, are about as accountable to you and me as the guy at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My young friend listened in polite, interested astonishment. He didn’t argue with me; he asked questions and thought about what I was saying. It was fairly clear to me that he had never encountered these ideas, or one who was willing to talk about them, before. Unless I am very mistaken, he found the ideas novel and fascinating.

I found myself wishing that we had time for me to explain the philosophical basis and history of the ideas about individual liberty that were the intellectual foundations of the American Revolution and our form of government, as well as being a way to think about different roles in society today. On the basis of our conversation, I’m pretty sure that my fine young athletics-and-dinner companion hadn’t ever gotten much that I would recognize as an education in American history (except perhaps from the perspective of oppression-and-identity politics) or civics.

Understand: the young man with whom I was speaking is a terrific guy, the product of privileged circumstances and well-known schools, and he is studying an intellectually rigorous subject, not identity-studies with a minor in Marxist theory dressed up as “social justice”. In theory, he should long since have been exposed to a wide variety of ideas about politics and economics, individual rights and responsibilities and the major threads of American history, but I’m pretty sure that he hadn’t been.

And that, dear readers, is an indictment of both our public culture and our elite educational institutions. They have so lost sight of the centrality of individual freedoms to the American idea and to the prosperity that we take for granted that such ideas – and our traditional culture – seem foreign to many of our brightest, most academically accomplished young people.

I’m not looking for our schools to teach a triumphalist vision of American civics or capitalist economics. But every young person – and particularly those who are credentialed by prestigious educational institutions – should at least understand the thinking behind them. They should also be familiar with The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, for that matter – and of the particular hells that the ideas in those books called forth.

I’m confident that when my young friend begins his life outside the academic/cultural bubble in which he has spent his life to date, his perspectives on lots of things will change. I’m not worried about him, it’s our country that I worry about.

M.H. Johnston

6 comments to Generation Z – Back to Square One?

  • KH  says:

    Does your new young friend know of Civil Horizon? ( nice recap of the blessing of having a businessman as mentor in one’s life)

    • M Johnston  says:

      Mentioned it to his dad, whom I also liked a lot, so maybe. But I doubt it. My young friend is in his own world and busy.

  • DCS  says:

    A topical piece.

  • KH  says:

    Intended as a compliment I know, DBH has distinctly the opposite reaction when considering the value and benefits businesses can provide society, contrasted to the head shaking described in this essay. (Not that D needs me to define or defend him)

    • M Johnston  says:

      Intended as a compliment (regarding brains and character) to the young man, not DBH. I know that the latter is in a different place.

  • Richard Lee  says:

    Great piece! Here’s another scant-noticed phenomenon: personal wealth earned through productive, ethical capitalism very often ends up as private philanthropy. To wit, the Richard Schulze Foundation as a newer effort and dozens of older, established ones.

    Also, the money that this man earned through Best Buy did not come at the expense of employees or customers. It came largely from gains in Best Buy stock, willing traded by buyers and sellers acting in their own interest.

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