The end of upward mobility

Oct. 6, 2005
In the small community where I grew up, Tommy Goodwin was the town drunk.
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When he would stagger past our house, my mother would direct my attention to him and say: "Look at Tommy Goodwin. He is a bum. You'll end up being a bum just like Tommy Goodwin if you don't get good grades in school and learn a trade. You don't want to be a bum, do you?"

My mother really knew how to motivate people. I didn't want to be a bum. I didn't want to stagger around town like Tommy Goodwin. So I got good grades in school, learned a trade, and ended up in a societal niche, which, although not exactly exalted, ranks me a bit higher than a bum.

With that as prologue, we will now turn our attention to the standard of living which people enjoy and, specifically, as to whether or not your children will end up being bums. Recently, societal observers have noticed that today's youth, as well as many middle-aged people and even those nearing retirement, do not have the high standard of living their parents enjoyed. That brings to mind another sage observation, this one made by a friend and neighbor. He once said: "The story of my family is a tragedy. I was born into a financially comfortable household, but my children weren't."

His story hit home because it pretty much summed up my own situation. While my three kids were growing up, I had a real struggle even coming close to giving them the same financial advantages I enjoyed through high school and college. Today, this phenomenon is even more widespread than ever. And when stories about it appear in newspapers, there is always an undercurrent of blame that ultimately settles on our economic system, tax structure, or avaricious corporations. However, no part of the blame ever settles where some of it belongs, namely, on permissive parents.

When my wife and I were struggling to manage a financially strapped household, we never told our kids that their sole purpose in life was to be happy. Instead, we were disciplinarians. We told our kids they had to be good students, graduate from college, get decent jobs, and be financially responsible. My wife and I knew that if our kids did that, they would probably end up being happy. By the same token, if they didn't do that, nothing would make them happy. While we were preaching the mantra of delayed gratification and personal responsibility, many of the young parents in our social circle weren't. Their line to their children was: "Do whatever you want, dear. Just so it makes you happy."

I would cringe when I heard that. Just as my wife and I thought, the advice turned out be bad. Being happy for these kids meant instant gratification and flipflopping through life without much focus or effort. They took soft courses in college, they dropped out, or often they didn't even enroll. A lot of them ended up with no skills, floated from job to job, or had extended periods of unemployment. And surprise of surprises, they also ended up not having the standard of living their parents enjoyed.

Today, when journalists notice that the offspring of middle-class parents don't necessarily do well, they write columns that focus on causes outside the family. They bemoan the end of an economy that once provided relentless upward mobility. But the blame is never within the individual. The articles ignore the fact that much of the fault lies with the "be happy" thing. It is the wrong thing to tell kids when they are supposed to be charting a course into adulthood. My advice to young people is that it is not important whether or not you are happy when you are 15. It is important that you are happy when you are 30.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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