We’re spoiled. And then there are our children.
“With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote recently in The New Yorker, noting that they’re getting not just “unprecedented amounts of stuff” but also “unprecedented authority.”
Kolbert suggested it’s all of a piece. “Letting things slide is always the easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and environmental protection,” she wrote. “A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society.”
As we’ve noted, Peter Drucker considered authority without responsibility a recipe for “tyranny.” And Drucker saw children being coddled and indulged all over the world. The youngsters raised under China’s one-child policy were an example. “Those kids are horribly spoiled,” Drucker observed in a 2001 interview. “That’s true in this country, too. When I look at what ten-year-olds expect to own, it’s unthinkable for my generation.”
Children in Japan had it even better—or even worse. “Until they reach school age, children are indulged in a way that goes beyond any American permissiveness,” Drucker noted in The Ecological Vision, although he added that all that changes as soon as Japanese children go to school.
All of us, old and young, have higher expectations these days about what life owes us. Knowledge workers count on their jobs being not just remunerative but also satisfying. “In that respect, the knowledge workers are badly spoiled during their early years,” Drucker noted in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “What was tremendously exciting when the job was new is boring and humdrum 15 years later.”
Of course, Drucker had no problem with the desire for fulfilling work. To that extent, being spoiled isn’t a problem. But he did see a risk in what Kolbert calls “letting things slide.” The proper way to lead is to be strict with those who report to you but also prepared to take the heat for things that go wrong. Drucker called it “leadership through responsibility” — and cited General George C. Marshall as a model. So if you’re considering wearing an officer’s uniform to the dinner table, hey, it might be good for your kids.
How spoiled are we today—and what does it mean for our future?