By Daniel Rose
“I am 15 and I really want a baby. Should I have a baby?” This question, asked by a schoolgirl recently on Quora, the online crowd-sourced vehicle, provoked an avalanche of replies.
The unanimously negative comments thundered, “No, not now!”, citing psychological and economic reasons and the detrimental practical impact on the baby, the family and the mother herself.
No one mentioned morality, religious belief or the distinction between married and unmarried cohabitation, nor did they refer to ethnicity or socio-economic conditions.
The answers reflect the cultural changes America has witnessed in recent decades, as new values, attitudes and social practices have evolved. The institution of marriage is seen as diminished in value and status; morality gives way to self-interest; personal concerns displace longer social goals and—most disturbingly—a growing present-mindedness supplants long-term thinking. The ramifications are complex, with profound implications for many aspects of national life.
Our present-minded society is faced with problems that were foreseeable: unfunded governmental pension liabilities; deteriorating physical infrastructure; diminishing government-funded scientific research on which future innovation would be based; and short-sighted educational practices that do not provide the skills required for effective American performance in an internationally competitive world. That American high school students perform poorly relative to their peers in all other advanced nations is acknowledged, as is the fact that the rich U.S. today has the highest poverty rate, the largest income inequality and the greatest wealth inequality of any major economy in the world.
Rising social and economic inequality has become a national preoccupation, with class eclipsing race, gender, ethnicity, religion and geographic location as a factor in perceived well-being. Economists typically see class quantified in terms of income and wealth; sociologists focus on occupational status and education; anthropologists consider cultural awareness, values and attitudes. Real world experience, however, has shown “psychological orientations to the future” to be the key factor in class determination. Based on its degree of future-mindedness, each social class “exhibits behaviors that extend to all aspects of life: manners, consumption, child-rearing, politics or whatever” (Edward Banfield in “The Unheavenly City”). This applies regardless of economic level, from those with much to those with little.
Present-oriented people live moment-to-moment, lack self-control and are prone to improvidence and irresponsibility. Violence, sexual infidelity, drug addiction and criminality are more common among them. The future-minded are self-disciplined, plan ahead and persevere. Even with low income and limited schooling, the future-minded can be middle class and high-achieving in culture. Experience shows that a child’s class culture is formed at home and in its earliest years, and the child’s future-mindedness should be of general concern.
Compared to other advanced nations such as the Nordic countries, America is “lower class” in its thinking across the socioeconomic spectrum. To begin a national reconsideration perhaps we must start at the bottom.
We can give parents appropriate incentives, disincentives, support and encouragement to increase the future-mindedness of their children. We can encourage them to bring into the world children who are planned and wanted, who will be raised by their mature parents in stable family settings, and who are socialized from infancy on to relate comfortably to others and to reflect self-respect and the self-confidence that will help them regard the future optimistically.
Praising a child’s strengths more often than criticizing weaknesses pays big dividends. Encouragement and commendation of character traits such as perseverance, curiosity, courage, humor and kindness are reflected in a child’s higher self-confidence, better relationships with others, better performance in school and in life.
Future-minded thinking is not a zero-sum game. It is better for the individual, better for the family, better for the community and better for society as a whole.
Financial capital, industrial capital and physical capital are important for a modern nation’s well-being, but human capital—the personal attributes, aspirations, work ethic, knowledge and skills of the public—are even more so. Future-mindedness is a key aspect of human capital, and how to inculcate it is our greatest challenge.