Party of One: Me First

Fortune magazine—which likes to celebrate capitalism but often finds itself chronicling the shortcomings of business instead—has recently published a scary look at the best and brightest of young business people. In this rising generation, “confidence borders on brashness"; the young want success and quickly, and come across as little monsters of selfishness.

The magazine made a study of twenty-five-year-olds who have “shown promise of becoming high-level managers or entrepreneurs”; in fact, most of them are already in upper-income brackets, starting at about $29,000 per household. Born in the midst of the baby boom, packed into congested schools, they have been competitive since nursery days. Only fifteen years old when Cambodia was invaded, they have none of the “flower child” generation’s anti-Establishment aversion to making money, and they mock their slightly older brothers and sisters for such foolishness.

Fortune studied eighty-two of them, and the wonder is that they stood still long enough to be interviewed. They are determined to get a head start on rivals their own age, so that by the time they are thirty-five they will be competing with only their elders for the highest jobs. Some, before taking their first job, usually in a large, established corporation, even looked into the average age of the company’s upper management. Most of them regard their superiors as deadwood, inept, incompetent, and nowhere near as technically prepared as they are.

Loyalty to the place where they work is not for them: that’s a security hangup of elders with Depression memories.

The ambitious young believe in jobhopping. “Switching jobs looks good on résumés,” says one of them. “It shows restlessness and ambition. I’m not going to stay with a company just because I love it.” Another adds: “I can’t plan on being in any one job with certainty for more than a year at a time. First, I’m too young to worry about finding some company to stay in for the next thirty years, and second, no one can count on his salary rising according to how good he is anymore.”

They are, Fortune says, bright, disciplined, hardworking, motivated: “They put their jobs ahead of most other diversions and commitments—including marriage, which many are in no hurry for, and children, which some claim they’ll never want. . . . Singlemindedly chasing their objectives, they ignore what doesn’t blend or harmonize with their purposefully limited landscape. They view work and life as a series of ‘trade-offs’ rather than compromises; for each opportunity surrendered, they demand an equal benefit in return.” They pride themselves on the honesty with which they proclaim their ambitions.

To Ronald Reagan, these young people may embody the self-reliant American way in its purest form, but Gwen Kinkead, the writer of the Fortune article, can’t resist a parenthetical comment: “To a stranger from another generation, they sometimes seem a grabby bunch.”

How faithful is this portrait of a new generation, and how much a caricature? I find myself increasingly suspicious of polls, particularly those that profess to measure attitudes rather than simply to record how someone intends to vote. All too many sociological studies, televised talk programs, and campus seminars generalize from dubious statistics based on answers given to vast loose questions that most people haven’t yet made up their minds about. Fortune’s small sample is more firmly grounded in the specific. The question then becomes whether these eager young executives are bellwethers that others will follow, or whether such horrifying concentrates of undiluted ego are unrepresentative of their age.

Edmund Burke found it impossible to indict an entire people; I find it just as hard to indict a generation, for I don’t know of one that doesn’t include the permissive and the Puritan, the indifferent and the impatient, the sentimental and the calculating. Yet it should be possible to speak of any generation’s dominant characteristics. Back in the Eisenhower year of 1955 (the very year in which this new group was born), Fortune measured a similar group of twenty-five-year-olds, and found them “an optimistic, tractable, incurious lot, dedicated to family and community service.” In sharp contrast, the outlook of Fortune’s new group confirms those who now speak of a Me Generation (or of a Me Decade)—though I’m also suspicious of this trendy phrase, and of all trendy phrases that lend themselves to advertisers’ urging to spend on oneself.

Selfishness, however, is always with us, and in fact is likely to be more pronounced in those who are older. Having paid their dues in life, the older people think they have earned the right to be selfish. To speak of a young generation selfishly occupied, then, is not to describe something unique. The uniqueness resides in what else seems missing in that generation.

The missing note in Fortune’s young is idealism. They are not drones; they like the good life, the ski trips, the visits to Europe or Tahiti. If they tune out on causes, if they feel no obligation to help others, the explanation is not only that they have no time for these matters, but that they have no heart for them. They are a platoon of Tin Woodmen.

Idealism is a much discounted quality these days, regarded as sentimental and impractical by many people who have become disillusioned. But Fortune’s young seem to have reached a state of no illusions without having first known the delights of enchantment; they have picked up disenchantment merely by observing it in others.

This is their loss. I’ve known two periods when idealism was the dominant national mood, and I’m glad to have lived through both. In the Depression there was a steady New Deal majority in favor not merely of legislation that benefited themselves (as special-interest legislation so emphatically does today) but also of legislation that only benefited others. The second period was that American outbreak of generosity after World War II, which put a war-devastated Europe back on its feet, and packed off food and help to poor nations everywhere. Both these bursts of idealistic impulse wore themselves out, but they accomplished much good, and I do not find our present civic atmosphere—that curious amalgam of despair, indifference, practicality, and meanspiritedness—to be wiser. Just more defeatist.

Fortune’s young are confident of their ability to operate in such a crass atmosphere. They seem to me an emotionally deprived group. Perhaps they become this way in the air-sealed climate of graduate business schools, where in the midst of all that get-ahead business training they must regard the occasional course in ethics as a dutiful but irrelevant gesture of piety. Or perhaps some among these young persuade themselves that they are postponing their idealistic concerns, like marriage or having children, for a later time. But then I remember how the showman Billy Rose made no effort to be regarded as Mr. Nice Guy until after he’d gotten his, only to find that his nice-guy muscles were permanently atrophied.

It may be that all the Me Decade talk makes Fortune’s young seem more representative of their age than they really are. They may be perfectly attuned to these times, but I wouldn’t bet on the times staying this way. This isn’t reckless optimism on my part, predicated on a belief in natural goodness (though goodness sometimes has its innings). Rather, it is based on the way that we as a nation lurch, often under the spell of events, from one mood to another. At this very moment, though journalism doesn’t make much of it, there are many Americans, young and old, striking their own balance between looking after their careers and trying to be of some use in the world. If Fortune’s young are indifferent to any cause that might distract them from their goals, many of these others can be described as cause-prone. But because nothing currently has broad enough appeal to unite them, their activities are dispersed over many causes and small acts. At what point a common cause will emerge, and what will occasion the mood swing, I have no idea. But when the mood does change, I don’t expect Fortune’s young to be converted to public-spirited idealism. Their predecessors, the grabbers who came before them, never were. They will prosper notwithstanding, but I don’t for a moment envy them.