Beyond a Culture of Short Horizons

Tuesday, April 1, 2008
William Damon

The single greatest barrier to youngsters’ finding their paths to purpose is the fixation on the short horizons that infuses the cultural messages to young people today. A popular culture celebrating quick results and showy achievements has displaced the traditional values of reflection and contemplation that once stood as the moral North Star of human development and education.

Instant mass communication transmits tales of highly envied people who have taken shortcuts to fame and fortune to every child with access to computers and televisions (and that amounts to just about every child in any industrial society). Among the most common formats for television shows at present are contests in which ordinary young people rocket to fame and fortune in a matter of minutes, days, or, at the most, weeks. The appeal of quick material success is amplified by current economic conditions, which have led to unparalleled abundance and affluence for some, fierce global competitiveness for others, and the specter of deprivation for many others.

Out of a mixture of status-seeking, acquisitiveness, insecurity, self-promotion, and just plain superficial values, the agents of today’s culture are urging young people to pursue short-term victories at the expense of enduring aspirations. The sad irony is that, for many of today’s young people, the short-term goals are not holding up—they cannot hold up—long enough to achieve the desired material ends. The quick routes to fortune and happiness showcased by mass media are little more than Hollywood-type fantasies. Any success in life, from the mundane to the spiritual, requires sustained effort. The more lasting and fulfilling kinds of success require a deeper reflection on the purposes that underlie the efforts. Developmentally, the proper period in life to begin such reflection is during adolescence, when a youngster begins to make choices about what kind of person to become and what kind of life to lead.

Youth is a time of idealism—or at least it should be. There is ample time later to rein in one’s dreams to conform to the inevitable constraints of the world, but a human life that does not begin with idealistic aspirations is likely to be a barren one. Philosophers, psychologists, and others close observers of human development have agreed on this for centuries. Aristotle put it this way more two thousand years ago: “They are hopeful, their lives are filled with expectation, they are high-minded, they choose to do what is noble rather than what is expedient—such, then, is the character of the young.”

In today’s nervously competitive world, youthful idealism is giving way to a single-minded desire for material gain and financial security. Researchers surveying student beliefs and goals in the early college years have concluded:

Especially notable are changes in the importance given to two contrasting values: “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” and “being very well off financially.” In the late 1960s, developing a meaningful philosophy of life was the top value, endorsed as an “essential” or “very important” goal by more than 80 percent of entering freshmen. “Being very well-off financially,” on the other hand, lagged far behind, ranking fifth or sixth on the list with less than 45 percent of the freshmen endorsing it as a very important or essential goal in life. Since that time, these two values have basically traded places, with being very well-off financially now the top value (at 74.1 percent endorsement) and developing a meaningful philosophy of life now occupying sixth place at only 42.1 percent endorsement.

That shift did not take place in a vacuum. Our popular media emphasize the allure of material success, especially of the quick-hit kind. What’s more, with the best intentions, adults in recent years have been busy talking young people out of their natural idealism and into a posture of heightened material concern. Often this is done out of a sense of fearful expedience, for the sake of helping the young person get ahead in today’s competitive marketplace. Such a stance is shaky for young people not only because it is unnatural for their period of life but also because it has no sustaining conviction of its own. It is a timid and pessimistic stance that inspires neither wholehearted effort nor lasting allegiance.

My intention is not to disparage material pursuits during youth or other periods of life. All people need, and enjoy, certain material possessions. As for money, it is beyond doubt key to achieving many of life’s goals. A large part of helping children learn how to pursue their dreams in a realistic way entails teaching them how to manage the financial demands of their chosen paths. But children must understand that money is a means to an end—hopefully, a noble one—rather than an end in itself. It is the glamorization of money for its own sake, as little more than a superficial ego boost, that leads young people down barren paths. The “quick-hit” mentality that I referred to only bolsters this fruitless orientation. By suggesting that success can be achieved without hard work and years of preparation, it implies that the things that can be quickly acquired if one is lucky—such as fame and material fortune—are themselves sufficient for true success. I object to this suggestion because true success requires a sense of meaning that runs deeper than fortune or fame. The accumulation of material success without an ultimate concern, some larger purpose that the material success is meant to serve, is a prescription for a dispiriting sense of emptiness once the initial glow of self-gratification has worn off.

Children must understand that money is a means to an end—hopefully, a noble one.

The predominant cultural messages today are convincing many young people to exert energetic (sometimes frantic) efforts in pursuit of achievement, but they have failed to help them find deeper purpose in the efforts they are making. The messages press for ratcheted-up achievement unconnected to ultimate concerns, higher performances that have little personal meaning for the child. What’s more, in too many of our conversations with our young, we fail to discuss the fundamental questions with them, as if this would slow them down in their race to get ahead. In our headlong rush—and theirs—we are not only losing the sense of what’s worthwhile to strive for but also depleting a main source of enduring motivation for a young person.

Goals for the short term—finishing a homework assignment, getting good grades, making the team, finding a date for the prom—come and go from day to day. They may be necessary for adapting to a present situation, and young people can certainly learn important skills while pursuing such short-term goals. But those goals cannot, in themselves, define an agenda for the future. Short-horizon thinking cannot help a young person define a desired self-identity (What kind of person do I wish to become?), nor can it produce an inspiring purpose to dedicate oneself to (What do I want to accomplish with my life?). Such thinking can serve to get one through the moment—sometimes necessary, to be sure—but not to create the kind of forward momentum that leads to lasting satisfaction.

Our cultural focus on short horizons no doubt stems from—or at least is accelerated by—insecurities that we face in our increasingly fast-paced global economy. We worry about the competition that we and our children are up against in seeking to provide the basic necessities of shelter, education, and health. How can we allow ourselves to get distracted by big-picture matters (and the Why question is the biggest-picture matter of all) when someone may be trying to eat our lunch right in front of us? Ironically, though, our efforts to be protectively pragmatic for the sake of our young have left them less equipped to deal with the complexities of today’s world. A short-term approach born of anxiety cannot foster the imagination and nerve needed to thrive in a highly dynamic contemporary society. Only a long view, fueled by energetic purposes, can build and sustain the capacities that will be needed.

Any success in life, from the mundane to the spiritual, requires sustained effort.

In place of asking the ultimate questions, we have been directing the attention of our young toward short-term concerns of competition, self-promotion, status, and material gain. We may believe that attention to such concerns is in their best interests; but in the end we always find that single-minded attention to such concerns can promote nothing more than ambivalence, disengagement, and cynicism. Rather than encouraging our young to pursue the interests that motivate and inspire them, we try to substitute our own concerns and goals for them. We turn a deaf ear to their pursuit of meaning—their own attempts to answer the big questions—and try to bring them back to our fearful concerns. It is a futile attempt.