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Two events on June 6 might denote the death of the “slacker” as an American cultural archetype. The first was the largest monthly jump in the US unemployment rate in two decades, due to an unexpectedly large number of young entrants into the labor market. The second was the release of the film Kung Fu Panda, which transposes the ubiquitous slacker-makes-good story line into the incongruous setting of Chinese martial arts.
America might be the first country in recorded history whose culture celebrates not only indolence but also the sheer absence of ability. Byronic loafing is the birthright of genius, but slacking has become the entitlement of every young American. American popular culture puts a special premium on doing nothing, which is what the protagonists of such popular television series as Friends, Sex in the City, The Office and Seinfeld did. Aristocrats throughout history loafed because they could afford to. Until very recently, so could Americans. That has come to a sudden and ignoble end, on which more later.
The popularity of slacking is evident from the success of films on the subject. Well, they knew their demographics those who crafted Kung Fu Panda, in which a fat and feckless panda who in two easy lessons becomes a kung fu master. As film critic Carina Chocano lamented in the Los Angeles Times, “The slacker panda whose favorite word is ‘awesome’ is singled out for heroism when all the other characters have worked long and hard (the definition of kung fu) and sacrificed for what they’ve accomplished. The message – believe in yourself even when all evidence suggests you shouldn’t – is annoyingly familiar and frankly overdue for a serious debunking.” A young martial-arts practitioner of my acquaintance said it more simply: “Who made this movie? I want to rip out his trachea.”
Underlying the seemingly good-natured adolescent humor of this exercise is a nasty streak of resentment. Young Americans profoundly resent the notion that they must subject themselves to the discipline of authority in order to learn and advance – precisely what Asian martial arts propose to teach. The easy success of the panda protagonist (with the annoying voice of actor Jack Black) is a gob of spit in the eye of authority.
The market is teaching Americans better. In a few years, I predict, young Americans will wear neckties to work and say “Yes Sir!” and “Yes Ma’am,” and spend their evenings at night school rather than drinking beer with their buddies.
In an essay entitled American idolatry (Asia Times Online, August 29, 2006), I suggested that American music’s gradual descent into mediocrity expressed growing resentment against artistic standards. But there is no resentment like well-funded resentment, and it is the tragedy of American adolescents to have had too much money at the worst possible time.
America is the only place in the world where a gaggle of acne-pitted, pizza-gobbling, beer-guzzling mind-altered college dropouts in cut-off jeans and flip-flops could start a website and become billionaires. A decade ago, a couple of ex-hippies sold an Internet greeting card site for US$4 billion. The window for such weird occurrences shut forever with the collapse of the Internet bubble, to be sure, but the memory of rich rewards to slacking persists among American youth.
The Internet bubble presumed that the world would pay staggering sums for future delivery of American popular culture. The world never really liked American popular culture, though; it liked what it thought that culture represented, namely, limitless opportunity and upward mobility. Bloated expectations about the financial future of web-based delivery of pop culture were a case of a bad idea chasing its own tail.
American college dropouts ceased to become Internet millionaires in 2001, but the sense of entitlement continued. As the world’s savings washed into the United States, reaching the improbable level of $1 trillion last year, American asset prices rose, and the cost of capital fell. Americans nearing retirement ceased to put money away, assuming that all of them would be able to sell their houses to each other at some future date. Home prices doubled in the decade through 2007.
American families stopped saving for their children’s university education, which at a good private institution costs roughly $200,000 per student. Families expected to take cash out of their homes, and students expected to borrow money at low interest rates, to defray these costs. Borrowing rather than saving for college became universal, and the volume of student loans outstanding reached $48 billion last year.
It is hard to think of a comparable case in social history: a country borrows from foreigners to lend money to its young people to spend four years binge-drinking at a university that pretends to prepare them for the world. Textiles to India and opium to China financed the slacking of three generations of British toffs, but the current-account surplus and the student loan securitization markets paid for the slacking of American undergraduates.
Now it appears that a few hundred thousand college-age Americans have fallen off the gravy train. Most American banks who offered student loans have exited the market entirely. It is not that students have ceased to pay back their loans, but rather that the banks are short of resources after the collapse of the mortgage-lending market and associated portions of their asset books. In May, the US government proposed emergency legislation to provide more government loans to students, but this will not make up for what the banks have taken away.
Families that expected to take cash out of appreciated homes had a rude awakening this year. Most American banks have stopped allowing mortgage borrowers to refinance and take out additional cash. So-called home equity loans, or second mortgages on homes, are the cause of the crash of US bank stock prices during the past few weeks. The well is dry. That leaves the youngsters in the lurch, which is precisely where most of them deserve to be.
A profound sense of panic appears to have gripped American youth, which might explain why so many of them are seeking a messiah in Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama. But there isn’t much that Obama or anyone else, for that matter, can do to help the slackers
Americans have to work harder, save more, and defer gratification. Instead of spending four years in a non-stop party at a taxpayer-subsidized state university, the middling American student will work during the day, go to night school, and save for a dozen years to buy his or her first house (at a much lower price than the present owner paid for it). They will stop complaining about boring jobs and oppressive bosses, and feel grateful to have the work. Their parents won’t bail them out; in fact, their parents will postpone retirement and work and additional 10 or 15 years.
It’s not going to be fun, but there’s no helping it. The sooner Americans reconcile themselves to a tighter belt and a longer day, the better.