The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz
Website: Liberty Book Shop
When college freshmen at UCLA were asked, back in 1966, whether they thought it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” only 42 percent answered “Yes.”

By 1980, the percentage had climbed to 62.5. This year, the university reports 73 percent liked the sound of that statement.

In another recent survey by Pew Research, 81 percent of young Americans aged 18 to 25 listed “to get rich” as their most important goal in life. Fifty-one percent chose “to be famous,” and 22 percent “a leader in their community.” Only 30 percent set “helping the needy” as their highest goal.

Some are dismayed at this level of materialism. “Our kids have absorbed the cultural values of more, easy, fast and fun,” warns David Walsh, a psychologist who heads the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis, and who recently wrote the book “NO: Why Kids -- of All Ages -- Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It.”

Yes, there’s a problem here. But it would help to define it a bit more precisely.

Of course our colleges -- even our high schools -- should seek to inculcate in young people a love of learning and other values considerably broader than mere “job training.” It would be nice if kids were reminded, more often, that “being famous” -- which can be a two-edged sword, as any subject of public and media attention can testify -- isn’t worth much unless the fame is earned by real accomplishment, usually preceded by years of thankless work in a skill, profession, or trade.

Dreams of being a millionaire athlete, rap artist, supermodel, or Hollywood star -- careers which the young apparently imagine involve little work -- are all very nice. But it’s advisable to have a back-up plan.

Otherwise, expect the kind of problems now reported by psychologist Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and author of “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- And More Miserable Than Ever Before.”

“There are a lot of young people hitting 25 who are making, say, $35,000 a year, who expected they’d be millionaires or at least making six figures,” Ms. Twenge reports. These young people have credit card debt and college loans to pay off, yet find it hard to imagine life without cell phones, iPods, Game Boys, and cable TV.

Yes, materialism can be a dead end for those who haven’t been taught to seek things of more lasting value -- loving families, skills and careers to be proud of.

But this is a different thing from condemning young people because they hope to do well.

The problem with the tongue-clucking over the UCLA freshman survey, as reported, is the false dichotomy it establishes between hoping to be “well-off financially,” and hoping to “help the needy.” It’s reminiscent of those high school principals who require a certain number of hours of “public service” of their graduates -- and then react with horror when some kid suggests that as a “public service” he plans to open a profitable sandwich shop, creating paid jobs for his classmates.

“But that’s not public service!” they object. “Public service means doing something unpleasant and low-paid and thankless, like emptying bed pans!”

(For the economics challenged, the way one can determine in a free market which potential job or career is of more “service to the public” is by simply asking which pays more. Though all remain free to choose lower-paid jobs if they prefer, generally speaking we gain more by having someone with the skills of a heart surgeon earning six or seven figures repairing faulty tickers, than making minimum wage by walking the roadside, collecting aluminum cans in a shopping cart.)

Though few 18-year-olds may have thought things through this far, what’s wrong with a young person saying, “I hope to become a chemical engineer, developing new pesticides that increase crop production with less harm to the environment, thus helping feed the poor -- and I hope to get rich doing it”?

Shall we condemn the young person who says “I want to run a big company, creating jobs for thousands of workers, manufacturing products that make life better -- and I hope to get rich doing it”?

UCLA is a public university. Few of its enrolling freshmen can look forward to lives of idleness, attending yacht parties and serving as patrons of the arts. If most have already realized that supporting a family and accomplishing something in life are going to take money, that’s not a bad thing, in and of itself.