This is all a reflection of a cultural shift away from what some experts call a child-centric understanding of love and marriage. Back in 1990, 65 percent of Americans agreed that children were a “very important” part of a successful marriage. By 2007, that number had shrunk to 41 percent.
Why are we taking so much less risk?
Much of it can be attributed to the economy. The recession is technically over, but unemployment is still very high, and there is lots of uncertainty. Few people are inclined to take risks when they feel lucky just to have a job.
Part of the calculus is affordability. It is expensive to raise kids. And it is very expensive to start a business and fail. Start with loss of capital, and include lost wages and opportunity costs, and the numbers really add up.
Part of it is cultural. From rubberized playgrounds to scoreless soccer, from social promotion to no red ink on school papers, from automaker bailouts to bank bailouts, we are living in a culture where risk taking isn’t cultivated, and failure isn’t permitted, and the quality of our lifestyles is more important than the quality of our lives.
But a big part of it just might be that we’ve lost faith in ourselves. With the culture everywhere trying to protect us from harm, we’ve lost the pioneer spirit that generations before us had and acted upon without much worry or navel-gazing.
We may also have lost our belief in the idea that taking risks and taking on responsibilities — and enduring a failure here and there — builds character. Of individuals. And of a nation.
And we’ve lost all sense of history. America has faced much worse perils than a slow-growing GDP and 8 percent unemployment. We’ve survived a battle for independence, a civil war, two world wars, recessions, and depressions — and, always, we’ve come out a stronger country.
What’s the solution? Maybe our leaders — in our families, churches, businesses, and government — need to encourage more risk taking, from public policy right down to discussions in the public square. The rational kind of risk taking, that is, not the crazy kind that led to the real-estate bubble and the financial crisis that followed.
Why take risks? Because the rewards are worth it, we need to argue. Because not taking risks is more dangerous than taking calculated ones. Because success is usually a result of failures along the way.
“I think of my failures as a gift,” A. G. Lafley, Procter & Gamble’s CEO, and widely regarded as one of the best business leaders of his generation, told Harvard Business Review in 2011. “My experience is that we learn much more from failure than we do from success.”
Failure is nature’s way of teaching us lessons we can’t learn any other way. Protecting our kids — and our citizens — from life’s every risk is simply not possible. And if what you are trying to cultivate in the culture of a family — or a country — is independence and self-reliance, such efforts will actually have the very opposite effect, breeding more dependency and an inability to cope with the realities of life.
If we don’t get in our cars and drive, a part of us dies.
If we don’t take risks with our hearts, love dies.
If we don’t marry and have children, civilization dies.
If we don’t start and invest in small businesses, our economy dies.
Just look at Europe. Look at its startup rates and fertility rates. Both are a direct consequence of too much government creeping into every aspect of daily life. It has sucked the energy and optimism and hope out of the economy. Out of life.
And for what seems like an eternity, our economy here in America has seemed dead, or in a dead stall.
If we don’t unleash the animal spirits in this nation, especially of all those new businesses waiting to be started and all those old businesses waiting to expand, we may be looking not just at a lost decade. We may be looking at lost generations.
Lowering corporate taxes and taxes on dividends — rewarding success rather than demonizing it — would be an excellent start. Such a move would unleash hundreds of billions in socked-away cash into the capital markets. It would unleash risk taking in boardrooms across America, and in garages too. Banks might start lending again, and soon, the animal spirits might get unleashed in America’s bedrooms, too.
Americans desperately want to take that leap of faith into the risk pool. We want to throw caution to the wind and commit to loving one another forever. Buying that new house (this time with 20 percent down). Having that first baby. And another. Starting more businesses. And investing in more businesses.
Americans are ready to put the past behind us, and start acting like Americans again. Like the hopeful, optimistic people we’ve always been. We’re ready to take chances again and, like those researchers at the Corning factory, emerge from our failures stronger.
In the end, it is we the people who will lift us out of this morass, not the government. We need leaders who believe we can do it.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan. Mike Leven is the president and COO of the Las Vegas Sands and a member of the Job Creators Alliance.