American culture and enterprise are broken. A wreck. The people who broke everything hope to outlast those who still have the energy to resist.
Meanwhile, vast numbers of people in this country no longer know which way is up, have no purpose, and only have a vague memory of how life is supposed to work, even as we sink further into economic stagnation.
That’s a big thesis but let’s begin with something small.
A few days ago, I was speaking to the founder and owner of a very successful accountancy firm that has been around for decades and has a reputation for doing great work.
We were talking briefly about the state of the country. And I got an earful, the same story I’ve heard from countless business owners and managers over the last several years.
She cannot find competent workers. They might have credentials but they cannot finish tasks. They lack professional scrupulosity, much less real pride in what they do. They slog to the office when convenient and look for every excuse not to be there. They take every last hour of paid time off and use every sick day. She has the feeling that even her employees are trying to pull the wool over her eyes.
This kind of low quality product is very dangerous in this business. There are deadlines. There are consequences for being wrong. Accounting has to be accurate for an enterprise to function and be compliant. She delays as long as possible in terminating employment but after years of experience, she sees the writing on the wall. But there is a problem: these days there are no obvious replacements.
At this point, she is looking forward to retirement. There are no successors to her position.
Every aspect of this small story is repeated millions of times throughout the country. I’ve heard it over and over in every industry.
We can’t find workers. The ones we do have don’t know anything. If they do know something, they don’t know how to actualize that knowledge in productivity.
If they produce, it is according to their terms, not the needs of the firm.
Another thing is just how entitled people under 35 years of age are. Everything in the office has to be just right, not just the temperature in the room but the coffee, the chair, the positioning of the window, all colleagues, and so on. They are just looking for excuses to complain, and the complaints are nonstop, about everything. There is a vague sense in the office that everyone is potentially litigious.
What an environment! Is it any wonder that companies are having a hard time getting people back to the office? Only half or so have been so persuaded. In many cities across the country, this has led to empty downstairs, with very low foot traffic compared with the past. That means that ancillary enterprises—restaurants, shops, bars—are not doing well either. There is a very real possibility in the future that many once-bustling tall buildings will fall into disuse and eventually be torn down.
Much of this mess was kicked into high gear during lockdowns. Workers discovered clever ways of pretending to do work while receiving vast sums in stimulus payments. Do that for two years and you never go back to the old ways. When you do go back, you do so only with anger, resentment, cynicism, and an underlying bitterness at the world.
This pretty well describes vast portions of the American workforce today.
The problem is the huge decline and fall in the work ethic.
It’s so ubiquitous that we hardly see it anymore but it is everywhere.
This is why bars and restaurants can’t stay open too late. They cannot find the workers who are willing.
This is why your car sits for weeks at the mechanic shop. This is why your favorite stores no longer carry what you used to buy, or, if they do, it is only intermittently and in a much smaller package.
It is why your sheets are no longer changed in a hotel, and why no one can fix your air conditioning and why, this winter, your street may or may not be plowed. It’s why you wait on hold for hours for tech support. It’s why flying is such a risk because it is as likely as not that the flight will be canceled.
It’s why when you are waiting for your flight, you go to a bar and have to order using your phone instead of talking to an actual human being. When your beer arrives, it could be what you ordered or it could be something else but there is nothing you can do either way.
It’s why everything you order is late, subpar, or overcharged and underperformed.
It’s why those who do work seem overwrought and overwhelmed, and those who don’t are invisible, dependent, and demoralized.
Fixer upper houses are enormously risky and selling at discounts because it is near impossible to find skilled, affordable workers to repair them.
Quite often these days, it feels like everything is broken.
The longer this goes on, the more it will be normalized. Even before lockdowns, this trend was accelerating. But when government set out to treat everyone like children and then abused them, a rampant sadness set in and led to demotivation.
If the government doesn’t care, why should I? If the government—with the media’s blessing and while tech companies get rich—is so utterly disregarding of the well-being of myself, my family, and my community, what hope do I have? I might as well find the nearest substance to take away my pain and while away the hours.
As a mental correction, I often return in my mind to the few weeks I spent in South Korea about 6 years ago. I was astonished at what I encountered simply because I had never seen anything like it before. No matter how early I got up in the morning and went downstairs or outside, there were mobs of people there before me. They were at the gym, in the public transit, in the shops, on the streets. It was the most bustling, enterprising, energetic scene I’ve ever witnessed, full of drive and ambition.
Walk through downtown streets and you get a relentless sales pitch for something or everything. Walk through the alleyways and you will be amazed at the back end of every enterprise: the sweat, the toil, the focus, the raw skill.
No one is afraid of work. It’s seen as a blessing.
This whole experience of South Korea inspired me. I’m pretty sure that this was America in the 1880s or the 1920s or even the 1950s.
Something has changed, something dramatic. The lockdowns just put a fine point on it: we are rich enough to do nothing but hide from an invisible respiratory bug. That response gutted what remained of many people’s connections to reality and a fulfilling life.
So yes, lots of things are broken, even most things.
Is there a way out?
Yes, but not before we deal with and overcome some very hard times.
We need a restored liberty but are a broken people prepared to fight for it?