One of my undergraduate students has written a review of The Complacent Class. Her name is Hannah Florence and she’s going on to great things.
In his speech at Rice University about the United States’ intention to reach the moon, President Kennedy declared these iconic words: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…the challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”
I am struck by how out of touch his words are with the current political environment. Is there a challenge that we are currently not unwilling to postpone? Never mind reaching new frontiers; Congress has been unable to address issues in its direct purview for decades.
The ambition and boldness of Kennedy’s speech directly contrasts with the lack of urgency that characterizes the public square and American life in general. On a societal level, the current political class has not taken the initiative to exercise creative problem-solving with substantial nationwide issues. Yet on an individual level, Americans are more risk-averse in all areas. Despite the perception of increasing American dynamism due to information technologies, Tyler Cowen details the “zeitgeist of community-enforced social stasis” in The Complacent Class (Cowen 7).
Americans used to be inventive and imaginative. Now Americans are less mobile, less innovative, and more reluctant to sacrifice comfort and safety for the chance at a better life. Cowen discusses how the restlessness of the 1960s – as evidenced in Kennedy’s speech – converged with the trends of the proceeding decades to create the foundation for the rise of The Complacent Class (5).
Cowen’s thesis is that people are less willing to disrupt the status quo, which is making us, writ large, worse off. More Americans don’t want to move or start a new business because the uncertainty of a better future is not worth risking the comfort of their current circumstances.
This thesis takes a different angle on a claim that has often been repeated in various social commentaries: many Americans, willfully or not, are stuck in a cultural and economic malaise. In The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that following the Apollo mission, Americans underwent a period of economic stagnation, demographic decline, and intellectual and cultural repetition (Douthat). In a more dated, but highly prescient argument, Robert Putnam empirically chronicles the decline in volunteerism, political participation, church attendance, and associational involvement. He poignantly illustrates the decline of communal life of many American communities—we used to join bowling leagues, and now we bowl alone (Putnam).
The common thread among these views is that something is amiss with the status quo and yet we are unwilling to challenge it. Across these different writings, there is a common cultural pivot point in the 1980s. Cowen argues that following the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, the Reagan era was a period of newfound wealth and prestige. The safety, prosperity, and stasis of the 1980s provided the means for Americans to dig in (Cowen 11). Douthat pinpoints the Challenger explosion in 1986 as the end of the era of space exploration (2). Putnam attributes a significant part of the decrease in civic involvement to the generational transition from the silent generation to the baby-boomers.
The three authors discuss a variety of different cultural phenomena – increasing income segregation, declines in political participation, institutional sclerosis to name a few – but they utilize the same vocabulary of stagnation, complacency, and resignation. Across all the texts, there is a sense that the grit, audacity, and optimism that characterized the generation that was raised during the Great Depression and served their community through WWII has been lost. If the Space Age represented the idea that tomorrow might hold something new; the ethos of our current era is the fear that it actually will.
The effect of these developments can be seen in the toxicity of our politics. During an ugly election in a strenuous year, we ultimately are the victims of our own complacency. We look to national elections to address our issues, with neither the grit nor audacity to serve our communities or change our circumstances. The high ideals espoused in decades past of service, mutual self-sacrifice, and courage seem beyond our reach.
Although comfortable (for some) in the short-run, Americans will be hindered in their abilities to meet the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly interconnected world without new ideas and people willing to spearhead them. This message is particularly relevant for current students (myself included) who are well-placed to take up this mantle but epitomize many elements of the Complacent Class. Our ambitions are tempered by our anxieties, and our resources are too often used as means of distraction rather than improvement.
In order for my generation to challenge the bulwark of economic and cultural stasis, we need to push against the guardrails we have grown up with. This won’t be an easy for a cohort that has long perfected their test scores and resumes. As I talk to other classmates about The Complacent Class, there is a general consensus that our generation won’t settle for the status quo we have inherited.
However, the irony of reading The Complacent Class in an international pandemic is that everyone has been forced to adapt to the ‘new normal.’ The coronavirus—and not gen z or millennials– has proved to be the ultimate killer of complacency. This means that the post-pandemic future may provide the needed margin to create a more dynamic economy and society. One that can bring those on the periphery into the fold and create opportunities for those who had been told to play it safe.
“John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium.” Nasa.gov, er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm. Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.
Cowen, Tyler. The complacent class: The self-defeating quest for the American dream. St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
Douthat, Ross. “The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.” (2020).
Putnam, Robert. “Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community.” (1991).