"Are you in control of what happens to you, or do other people, luck, and larger forces control your fate?" – Generation Me by Jean M Twenge
Everyday we make countless little choices. Should I leave five minutes early for work to make time for coffee? Should I take a shower in the morning or at night? Should I take the subway or walk? We make many of these decisions without thinking twice about them. Then there are times when we are faced with bigger life choices: Should I stay at my job or find another one? Should I rent or own? Do I want to get married?
The United States is founded on the principle that every individual should have the ability to make life choices. As citizens, we have the right to pursue happiness and reach for our personal definitions of success. Our right to choose our own path is something we rarely question. After all, with enough motivation and individual drive, we can be anything we want to be; we can rise from rags to riches with self-determination alone–or so says the "American Dream."
The generation that was born in the mid-1980s and 1990s, known as Generation Y, for many is a perfect example of having faith in one’s abilities alone to reach any goal set forth. Some argue that Generation Y is the most individualistic and self-concerned generation to date. But does this rhetoric actually limit their choices? Is it helpful for someone to think their choices are limitless, if this may be false?
Bob Herbert at the New York Times says, "This is a generation that is in danger of being left out of the American dream – the first American generation to do less well economically than their parents. And that economic uncertainty appears to have played a big role in shaping their views of government and politics."
The concept of success with out barriers doesn’t necessarily apply to all Americans. Many would argue that real freedom is defined as the ability to create the options in your life as opposed to having to choose between what’s presented to you. For many living in poverty, dealing with sexism, racism, and other -isms, society can often determine your options. And very few actually rise from rags to riches.
On the other hand, this line of thinking does little to create sustainable change and everyone needs to feel a sense of agency in order to face the stressors of life head on and positively. Jean M. Twenge, Author of Generation Me, explains, "In a recent survey, a stunning 98 percent of college freshman agreed with the statement ‘I am sure that one day I will get to where I want to be in life.’ One professor encountered this GenMe [author’s term for Generation Y] attitude in an undergraduate class at the University of Kansas. As she was introducing the idea that jobs and social class were based partly on background and unchangeable characteristics, her students became skeptical. That can’t be right, they said: you can be anything you want to be. The professor, a larger woman with no illusions about her size, said, ‘So you’re saying that I could be a ballerina?’ ‘Sure, if you really wanted to,’ said one of the students."
Is "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," an American phenomenon? Elizabeth Gudrais explains in The Harvard Magazine, "Americans and Europeans tend to disagree about the causes of poverty. In a different survey-the World Values Survey, including 40 countries-American respondents were much more likely than European respondents (71 percent versus 40 percent) to agree with the statement that the poor could escape poverty if they worked hard enough. Conversely, 54 percent of European respondents, but only 30 percent of American respondents, agreed with the statement that luck determines income." Perhaps George Eliot said it best when he said, "The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice."
How do we find the balance between being motivated and realistic? What are the barriers to having choices? How much do our social identities limit or push us towards success? What does this mean for our youth? Why do some young people "choose" to join gangs, do drugs, and act violently? Is it important for people to feel a sense of agency, and if so why? How much of a role do we have in creating the life we live? What does choice mean to you?
- Are We in a Narcissism Epidemic?
- Journal of Ordinary Thought Issue about Choices – Introduction
- Forget short showers: why personal change does not equal political change
- Can you have too many choices?
- Unequal America
- Generation Next: Tough Choices
- Study finds students narcissistic
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