What happened to American’s spirit of adventure?

By Mike Cook for the BBJ

Earlier this year my wife and I were standing in the British Air rebooking line at London’s Heathrow airport, having just missed our connection from Rome to Seattle at the end of our vacation. The line was long but chugging along and we were pondering whether we’d be spending a night at Heathrow or possibly be offered a stay over somewhere along our route home.

As I looked around I noticed a young woman just behind us with reddened eyes and tears streaming down her face. I an effort to show some concern I asked what was wrong, as if standing in the rebooking line was not clue enough! She had, as was the case with the rest of us, missed a connection, in this case from Texas to Copenhagen, Denmark. I offered that she’d be there soon enough as Copenhagen was only a two-hour flight from London. I then asked how long she’d be in Copenhagen. Her answer set me to thinking about something that has been on my mind for about a year; how has the spirit of Americans become so brittle, so prone to complaint and whining, so lacking in overall perspective? You may have heard the phrase, “first world problems?” This was a classic case of the kind of everyday issue that now so easily seems to defeat what historically has been a sense of adventure, occasion for ingenuity and source of national identity. Honestly, today’s American live in a state of fear and entitlement much of the time.

As it turned out the young lady behind us was on her was on her way to start a four-month study session at a Danish university in conjunction with her undergraduate engineering program. She was going to be a few hours late for a four-month program and she was not just upset, she was angry! We talked further and it became clear that she felt she was entitled to better treatment from the airline than she had received. “Well”, I thought to myself, “Join the club!” I imagined everyone standing in that line had some version of those very thoughts running through their mind but for the most part they were calmly working with ticket agents to resolve their delay and complete their trip, no tears, no anger, no sense of unfulfilled entitlement.

As I said, a somewhat related topic has been on my mind for about a year, ever since I ran across some statistics that showed that new business start-ups were way down from historical patterns. I know overall the numbers are up, the stock market is at an all-time high, the economy has shown continued though pokey growth for an extended period but I think, if you are honest, something does not feel right. There is a sense of fragility in the air, as though things could go to hell in a handbasket at a moment’s notice. Honestly, I don’t know if things are really fragile or if it is us as a people that has become fragile, brittle if you will.

New business start-ups are an important measure not only of economic but also social strength. Statistically and historically, most people work for smaller businesses. When we as a nation are confident, we start new businesses, this has been the source of our national expansion and economic dynamism. And that pattern has changed, new business starts are way down from historical highs.

Now let me explain how I make this connection as it may not be as clear to you as it is to me. New business start-ups require someone to take risk and, according to Tyler Cowen in his recently published ‘The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream’, “Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether, and that is true whether we’re talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things.” Matching this up with the current statistics and what we see is evidence of a national shift toward risk aversion, a trend that cannot be defended by looking at our history.

In the spirit of the season and with gratitude for all I have been given in my lifetime I can honestly say that in many ways none of what I have achieved is solely a product of my own talents. I do not come from a risk-taking heritage. Had I not listened to people outside my historical circle it is likely that I would have never left the mid-west. I would not have lived in New Jersey or San Francisco; I would likely not have experienced the adventure of New Orleans or Washington D. C. I would not know that Pittsburgh is one of the loveliest and entrepreneurial cities in America and I most certainly would not have lived in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. Finally, and not least, I would not have been standing in that British Airways rebooking line and met that young lady suffering such an inconvenience.

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