There are high hopes for my generation, the Millennials, born between 1981 and 2001. We are to be the ones to stop global warming, cure cancer, and solve most of the world's other problems. After all, the Millennials helped elect Barack Obama, who championed hope and change. Once America has weathered the current economic crisis, we Millennials will be called upon to bring the economy into the middle of this century -- to take risks, create jobs, and elevate the nation to the next level of achievement by replacing our retiring entrepreneurs.
It's a shame we never learned the solid moral values necessary to accomplish these goals and maintain a healthy civil society.
The Millennials have been born into prosperity and leisure. Before now, we have not witnessed a major economic downturn and the closest most of us have been to war is playing a video game. For better or for worse, we are the "coddled generation," watched by overzealous "helicopter parents" who would do anything to give their child the edge. We grew up being told that we're "special" by everyone from little league coaches who give trophies to both winners and losers, to the late Mr. Rogers, who reminded us every morning that the world revolves around us. We are also the "bling" and reality TV generation. Television shows like MTV Cribs deluded us into thinking that we will one day be able to afford the grand houses, personal chefs, and enormous shark-filled fish tanks of the stars. We couldn't stop watching reality shows like I Love New York and Flavor of Love, where the dregs of society congregated for their fifteen minutes of fame. Contestants hoped to cash in on their newfound celebrity, emulating Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who, after debuting on The Apprentice, has appeared on more than 20 shows. Other programs, like I Love Money, provide an outlet for money-hungry reality "stars," degrading themselves in the process. With all this worship of money, it's no wonder that rapper 50 Cent's album Get Rich or Die Tryin' was the best selling album of 2003. Beyond excessive coddling and the unrealistic pursuit of "bling," there is a greater weakness in my generation that may spoil our plans for success: our moral compass is pointing in the wrong direction. According to the Josephson Institute for Youth Ethics 2008 survey on the ethics of American youth, 64 percent of high school students admitted cheating on a test during the previous year and 38 percent did so two or more times. 30 percent admitted to stealing from a store within the past year. Yet, incredibly, an astounding 93 percent of those same high school students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character.
My personal experiences have confirmed these statistics. I know of one instance where rich parents offered a brand-new BMW to an SAT tutor to take the test for their child, who was surely in on the scheme. The parents didn't want their child to achieve on merit alone and encouraged cheating. The tutor declined the offer, but I am confident this is not the only case.
To share another personal example of twisted morality, two summers ago I was eating at a diner with some recent acquaintances. After we finished, I left a generous tip. As we were leaving, my companions started to laugh hysterically. I asked what was so funny and they revealed that they had taken my tip, a reward for service that was perfectly fine, and replaced it with a penny. These boys essentially stole the major source of income from a waitress, insulting her in the process -- all to "teach me a lesson" about over-tipping.
Looking at the big picture, my generation's moral deficiencies may derail our economic future. In 1985, when he was still known as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a prophetic article, entitled "Market Economy and Ethics." The Cardinal argued that a market economy cannot be understood without taking the morality of the participants into account. The capitalistic model of the self-regulating free-market economy, he contended, includes the assumption "that the laws of the market are in essence good... whatever may be true of the morality of the individuals." The Cardinal disagreed, concluding that the development of an economy "depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions."
From Enron to Madoff, we have witnessed the economic consequences of immoral behavior. The current financial crisis was in part caused by immorality: buyers bought homes they couldn't afford, sellers sold homes to people who couldn't afford them, and the government sat back, enjoying the show.
The ruling generations are now debating whether capitalism has failed us and America should become more socialist. The outcome of this debate will dictate what kind of country we Millennials will inherit. Although I am only a junior in high school and haven't even taken Econ 101, it does not take an advanced degree to know that moral behavior is essential to any economy -- capitalist, socialist, or communist. Immoral people can make socialist or even communist economies just as dysfunctional as the worst capitalist ones. If all economic systems have the same possibility for immoral, economically destructive behavior, why not choose the one with the greatest reward for the most people: capitalism. The public is too quick to forget how America achieved its place as king of the world economy. It was not through nationalized industries and government subsidies, but through fierce yet healthy competition and rapid growth of the private sector.
So far, we Millennials have not had much of a chance to step up to the plate and prove ourselves morally capable of becoming the leaders of the American economy. But we will have no choice and, unless we change our ways, our immoral behavior can have disastrous consequences. Get Rich or Die Tryin' may have been a popular album, but it must not become the mantra of a generation.
There is one point on which I respectfully disagree with Pope Benedict: his view that only "strong religious convictions" can provide the morality needed to perfect the world economy. Whether it is God, Karma, or whatever else that informs our moral ethics, all that Millennials need to do is simply be good. As Rabbi Hillel said two thousand years ago when he summarized the Torah, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. All the rest is commentary."
Charlie Nathan is a high school junior at The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY. He has a blog at themastersmob.com.