Not since gas lines and Jimmy Carter’s sweaters has America’s self-confidence been so shaken. Consumer economic expectations are trawling their lowest level recorded in the 40 year history of this index. Rasmussen Reports polling pegs Congress’ job-approval rating at 9 percent, deep in record low territory. Last year, for the first time since the Great Depression, household saving had plunged to about zero.
I’ve just begun ticking off the economic, social, and psychological indicators registering multi-decadal extremes. According to Federal Reserve Board data, total public and private debt relative to the size of our economy has reached its highest level in a century, our debt load doubling since just 1980. We’ve gorged on expensive houses, cars, wars, and bridges to nowhere to the point of threatening the entire world financial system.
One in four of us tell the General Social Survey that we have no close friends, more than double the friendless rate in 1985. Spouses in dual-income families with children spend an astonishingly small twelve minutes a day talking with each other. Almost 30 percent of working Americans take no vacation time at all, our average vacation being only thirteen days, half that of the next lowest industrialized nation. We say that having sex is our single most favorite thing to do, but we are so busy on our career and debt treadmills that we spend only three minutes a day doing it.
Gallup polling finds a record 80 percent of Americans viewing our moral values as weak and declining. Ethical collapse is ubiquitous: Tax cheating has tripled since 1990. Sixty percent of high school and college students anonymously admit to academic cheating. Ninety percent of job seekers falsify their resumes.
Since 1960, obesity has tripled to one in three of us. Roughly one in four of us are addicted to at least one substance or behavior. The most extensive-ever survey of American mental heath found that the lifetime risk of major depression for today’s young adults is seven times higher than for those born two generations earlier.
What connects these and a host more of the dark indicators that fill two chapters of my book? Unlike previous recessions, it’s about more than high oil prices and a faltering GDP. After three decades of pedaling harder and faster to meet our culture’s increasingly lofty goals and progressively more inaccessible role models, even the economically secure have reached psychological exhaustion.
The good news is that we are ready to question these goals and role models and, in the process, to redefine the meaning of success in America.
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I log on to AOL, one of America’s top four websites, to check my email. I can slightly customize my initial welcome screen, but I cannot bypass the daily flux of iconic images. Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Bono, Princess Diana. One click takes me to exactingly descriptive profiles of America’s twenty-five most envied people, all smarter, richer, more famous, and with better hair and sex than mine. Another homepage click takes me to the top ten most expensive homes, cars, and vacations.
Human interest in high status people is nothing new. It’s a healthy shortcut in selecting competent leaders. What’s new is that the typical American adult now spends nine hours each day—more than any other waking activity— consuming some form of media. What’s new is that over these past few decades, media culture has grown to saturate our psychologies with the managed images of toweringly famous, wealthy, and beautiful people, their flawless real estate and gold-dusted deserts luring us in vivid, intimate detail. The saturation has warped our aspirations and made us delusional. Thirty percent of us think we will become famous; 45 percent think we will become wealthy.
What’s also new is the global economy. It’s eclipse of local life and endeavor has left most of us with no place to satisfy our healthy need for recognition of our modest talents and contributions. As recruiters in many forms scour five continents to find the celestially brilliant and talented, competition has hyper-intensified. The ever-more gargantuan rewards lavished on the winners have inflated success benchmarks at every level down the ladder.
Thirty years ago, the average, pay for the top hundred American CEOs was $1.2 million in today’s dollars; in 2006, it was $51 million. Alpha male pleasure yachts have grown by 50 feet a year during this decade, the longest now surpassing a WWII battleship. Personal aircraft leaving no doubt about one’s status have become flying palaces with interior fit ups costing in excess of $100 million. Even being vastly rich is no longer sufficiently distinguishing. Among the world’s more than 1,000 billionaires, wealth has become only a platform for the latest status benchmark, global philanthropist, à la Bill Gates or George Soros.
Millionaires—nine million in the U.S—have become as ordinary as Babbitts. People with half million dollar incomes (the bottom third of the top one percent), look enviously at the aspiration group above themselves and describe American society as “unfair.” For middle-class Americans, benchmark inflation has filled our highways with over-powered SUVs, our homes with unneeded rooms, and those rooms with unused toys.
Today, being visibly successful for longer than fifteen minutes requires preeminence in multiple disciplines. A recent full-page ad in The Economist features Dr. John Halamka, who is selling us far more than his BlackBerry:
Being the CIO of Harvard Medical School is just one of my jobs and passions. I’m also an emergency room physician and a worldwide lecturer. No matter where I am, not matter what time zone, I need my virtual team at my fingertips … Without my BlackBerry smartphone, I couldn’t … balance it all with being a rock climber, winemaker, husband and father.
SWAT teams of plastic surgeons, clothing engineers, makeup artists, and digital retouchers manage the physical appearance of the celebrities against whom we compare our own imperfect and mortal bodies. So, 80 percent of women dislike their own appearance. Plastic surgeries are up by over four times since 1992.
Thirty years ago, American childhood was a time for tree forts, sandlot baseball and unsupervised play with friends who lived in your neighborhood. Today among the aspirational classes, childhood is just another part of the resume-building process that starts before birth. Parents play fugues through placenta walls misguidedly hoping to garner their progeny an edge in mathematics. Fifteen years of shuttle to afternoon and weekend extracurricular activities gives our kids an ever slimmer shot at a premium brand college, where applicants have never been more qualified and acceptance rates never lower.
What happened in 2008 is that our exaggerated goals and expectations have finally crashed against reality. In this swamp of OverSuccess, by comparison, most of us are failures. Our pervasive social defeat, in part, explains our overconsumption, overwork, overeating, depression, addiction, and moral decline.
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Social critics have long suggested that Americans downsize our goals. But I, for one, would not trade high-speed ski lifts, artisan chocolate, and a cancer cure for Wonder Bread, Bakelite, and a bowling renaissance. One thing we can downsize without wrecking America’s unique formula for greatness is the size of our social groups.
Rather than living, working, and comparing ourselves to the status icons that populate media culture, we can create, revitalize, and join human-scaled groups of a few dozen members. In these new villages, ordinary people play vital roles and everybody knows your name. Each of these villages—whether a small business, a community nonprofit, or an obscure hobby—will define its own relevant skills, talents, goals, mentors, and benchmarks, a “multiple intelligences” approach to success.
W.L. Gore—the $2 billion, highly profitable, rapidly-growing manufacturer of Gore-Tex fabric and thousands of other high-tech, materials-based products—has proven that small villages work exceptionally-well in the big-business world. Gore is consistently ranked one of the world’s top employee-friendly workplaces. Employees own most of the company and have no rank or title, using their own judgment to select new projects or products, becoming leaders and launching products by recruiting team members from within the company.
To maintain new villages in a multinational company, Gore builds plants large enough for no more than 150 to 200 employees, forcing new product groups to break off into separate buildings when they grow above that number. Within these settings, people can assess themselves based on realistic benchmarks—and find the satisfaction that comes from actual success.
The new-villages solution to benchmark inflation and social defeat can be applied across our business, voluntary, and personal lives. Today’s economic and psychological stresses can become a turning point for America where our individual goals become better aligned with our real needs, interests, and talents.
OverSuccess: Healing the American Obsession with Wealth, Fame, Power, and Perfection will be published in October by Greenleaf. Amazon pre-orders, here.