The headline grabbed my attention: “Americans have become lazy and it’s hurting the economy.”
Lazy? Now there’s a four-letter word you rarely hear Americans use to describe themselves.
People were furious years ago when George W. Bush correctly surmised that immigrants “do jobs that Americans won’t do.”
Anyway, how can Americans be lazy when everyone insists we’re working harder than ever and spending less time with family?
Well, according to a recent article in CNN Money, laziness isn’t just about not wanting to work. It’s also about not taking risks, changing routines, switching jobs, starting businesses, going to school, getting training, picking up skills, moving around the country, expanding your network, and getting out of your comfort zone.
In the industrial Midwest, unemployed factory workers don’t want to relocate as much as they want the factory to reopen.
The generations of today – including the baby boomers, Generation X and millennials – don’t always like to roll the dice as much as the World War II generation did. We prefer safe bets, and we like it when opportunities come to us on a silver platter. Even the definition of the American dream has changed. Wealth and materialism are out, safety and security are in.
Still, who would dare call Americans lazy?
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University who believes that living through upheaval – political, social, economic, etc. – has caused Americans to hunger for safety, predictability and the status quo.
In his new book, “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream,” Cowen argues that we’ve over-corrected and gone too far toward trying to create perfect, insulated “bubble worlds” for ourselves and our kids. And now we’re afraid to change anything, lest we burst the bubble.
Cowen insists that this habit of playing it safe is hurting the economy by keeping it flat and making it stagnant. He notes that economic growth is happening at a much slower pace than it was 30 or 40 years ago and that our rate of productivity is way down.
This national complacency isn’t doing our politics any favors, either. Not only are Americans polarized and unable to have civilized conversations with people who hold different viewpoints, we’re also cemented into our respective ideologies. We’re slow to listen, and quick to ascribe sinister motives in order to dismiss perspectives we disagree with.
Cowen also believes that our public schools are a casualty of this kind of laziness. Is a national mood of not trying hard enough driving down students’ test scores? Teachers unions and school districts seem to be conspiring to loosen accountability standards, and go easy on students – which in turn takes pressure off the adults who are supposed to teach them.
This mindset even spills into childrearing, he says. Parents are afraid to let their children out of their sight, let alone allow them to play outside. Climbing trees is forbidden. So is riding bikes alone through town. You have to wonder where the inventors of tomorrow will come from, if the kids of today can’t wander about and let their imaginations soar.
And finally, even technology – which is supposed to make our lives easier and more efficient – could be making this problem worse. As Cowen notes, many innovations are designed to do more so that we can do less. Whereas a couple decades ago you had to get in the car and drive to a video rental place, now you can order a movie with your remote without leaving the couch. Is it good or bad that life is getting easier?
So how do Americans snap out of our complacency daze – and get back into the deep end of the pool? For one thing, Cowen says, we need to take more risks in our personal lives. The government also has to encourage more innovation.
Let’s remember that the very idea of America started out as a crapshoot, an experiment that wasn’t given much chance of succeeding by the powers of the 18th century – England, France and Spain. Americans need to keep that spirit alive.
Luckily, as Cowen told CNN Money, there is still one group of people in America who understand the whole point of the place.
“Immigrants are the greatest risk-takers of all. They are the least complacent class,” he said.
Americans often view immigrants as a threat. They ought to see them for what they are: part of their salvation.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., formerly of Sanger, is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is email@example.com