We’re Raising a Generation of Organization Men (or Women)

Is this your kid in a few years?

We’re living in the most entrepreneurial time in history. My neighbors and I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, the most entrepreneurial place in the world. However, everywhere one looks, across the United States, kids are being raised to be The Organization Man or Woman. You know, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the Japanese Salaryman, Willy Loman, etc.Why do I say this? Well, let’s look at kids’ lives. Relative to children of decades ago, they make very few decisions on their own. Parents and other adults mediate most of their lives. Thus, they have very little opportunity to develop creative decision-making abilities.

I contend that the entrepreneurs of the last few decades up to today had a lot more opportunities in this regard. For instance, let’s take my father’s childhood in the 1930s and 40s and mine in the 1960’s and 70s. We’re both career entrepreneurs.

In the video on my father’s childhood, he talks about building a shack with his friends and using it as a clubhouse, collecting junk and selling it to gain admission to a theater, and creating a special stick to retrieve a nickel out of a sewer. In my video about my childhood, I talk about a tree shack my friends and I made and hung out in and how we charged a toll to cars trying to pass by on our street.

There is nothing especially unique about these experiences relative to other children of our eras, but they are very different from the childhoods of most children today.

We decided what we were going to do almost every day, for at least part of the day. We decided what we were going to use to do what we did, and often that involved creating something. We decided who we were going to play with, and as a group, we decided on leaders and what behavior was cool and what behavior wasn’t. And, we had a fair amount of latitude on deciding where we were going to play.

Parents were largely irrelevant to these decisions, and we made them daily.

When pre-high school children of today are told by their parents to “find something to do” on their own, the children usually feel lost. It’s tough to generalize, but I’d say kids of today aren’t what I would consider “independent thinkers.”

That’s scary, at least for a guy like me. I, for one, am not looking forward to living in a world dominated by organization men and women.

Back in the early 1960s, Psychologist Stanley Milgram and his colleagues ran an experiment where subjects were politely asked to electrically shock test-takers (who were, unbeknownst to the subjects not real). 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final – and often fatal – 450-volt shock, though many were very uncomfortable doing so. No participant steadfastly refused to administer shocks before the 300-volt level.

Commenting on his results, Milgram wrote, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Would the kids of today do any better? I suspect not. What do you think?

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7 Responses to We’re Raising a Generation of Organization Men (or Women)

  1. Mark Brandemuehl says:

    Mike,

    I see an even more insidious side to this. It’s not true that given time on their own that boys can’t find something to do. They do something called video games. Now ask yourself “What does a video game teach about risk taking?” The consequences of making a bad judgment in a video game are – none! What are the consequences of trying to jump off the garage? Interesting – let’s try it and find out! I would argue you learn a lot more from jumping off the garage – the dangers of peer pressure, the perils of gravity and the thrill of pushing through your fear.

    I think in the past (in a way) serious injury or even death was considered an expected possible outcome of childhood. Heck, you had polio and other serious diseases to worry about — why worry about the 0.1% chance of serious injury from normal play? Especially, when Dad was working his a** off and Mom had a full-time job keeping the house going? It was a tragedy when a child got hurt, but it didn’t stop the presses or cause the legislature to pass a law.

    Today’s society is so focused on eliminating that last sub-1% risk of injury or death to children that it has lost the bigger picture that only by taking risk do you learn.

  2. Simon Firth says:

    Where are the local entrepreneurs? Well, come summer lemonade stands are a regular feature on the street corners of my neighborhood (College Terrace) in Palo Alto and the prices . . . well,kids are getting a dollar a cup these days.

    In fact there’s something of a debate among parents here about whether you should let your kids try for outrageous prices or require that they make them reasonable. For all defenders of the free market, the trouble with the kids pricing things high is that they get an unrealistic idea of how true markets work. Their customers will often pay the money asked but think the kids greedy at the same time. So there’s a cost, but one born by the parents, who care about the famiy’s reputation more than their less socially-acute children.

    If the kids ran their businesses for more than an afternoon (which would be illegal in our town) maybe they’d learn to price the product lower to improve their brand reputation and raise overal volume, but because they aren’t in full time retail they don’t get it. They also don’t get the degree to which good will towards young entrepreneurs helps gloss over the outrageous prices.

    Still, that’s not to say that the stands aren’t welcome and a good lesson for the children — only that there are some interesting questions about whether parents need to operate as some sort of regulatory agency in the neighborhood lemonade market– such agencies being a fact of adult entrenpreneurial life after all.

    And the fact that there is a debate and that the prices aren’t finely attuned to market sentiment suggests that there are at least some kids around here who are being allowed to make their own mistakes.

  3. Mike Lanza says:

    OK, Simon, I don’t want to dwell on the past too much, but I must tell you how entrepreneurial we kids were back in the day.

    Surrre, we had lots of lemonade stands.

    We also had many kid-run carnivals every summer for a local charity. At the one my friends and I ran, one friend set the price of cupcakes at 10 cents + 15 cents tax. Yes, he invented his own tax, and of course, he pocketed it.

    Also, I sold baseball cards at elementary school. My dad, who owned a pharmacy, sold them to me at his wholesale cost. I gave volume discounts and had a sort-of card loyalty program (check off the card ten times for a special discount).

    For a period, kids made flavored toothpicks at school. The most popular flavor was cinnamon, but peppermint was a hot seller as well.

    Later, in high school, I built custom wheelchair ramps. My marketing set-up was a corner of my dad’s store.

  4. E says:

    Several thoughts:

    1) Some people have children later in their lives, and these children are their “last chance”, so these parents tend over protect their kids.

    2) Children may not have a cause to try to break their heads for. If they’re fed with a silver spoon, they won’t learn how to eat themselves, and therefore the parents have to set up a situation in which the child needs to develop independent thinking amd problem solving skills. This comes through in communication, play and socialization (i.e let the child do the talking, the deciding, the introducing, etc).
    On a side note, that’s why I don’t agree with the idea of play-dates: It’s forcing the children to become friends in an artificial way. When going to the park, school, courtyard, etc, befriending kids occurs more naturally.

    3) Simon, I agree with you that the kids may not learn the game of the market this way. But do they need to? I think that kids should not deal with money untill college.
    Kids that start businesses become greedy, and they start seeing the world based on its worth and cold calculation. Of course everything depends on the parents’ visions of the child: do they want a businessman or woman, or do they want a more spiritually and intellectually developed child that may later turn into business?
    My parents never let me find any work as a kid, even if I really wanted to. They always said that if I want I can ask them. And I tried to ask as least as possible because it wasn’t ok to just spend money foolishly. Which brings me to another point:
    When parents are wealthy, they can be tempted to spoil the child by not limiting the amount of toys and not setting something “special”.
    If going to the theater wouldn’t be special, your father, Mike, and his friends wouldn’t work hard to find a way to get the tickets.

  5. Mike Lanza says:

    I forgot one important entrepreneurial activity at my middle school and high school: sports betting. Almost every boy in middle or high school participated in different sports betting schemes, and many kids at school were the “salesmen.”

    Then, of course, there was the drug sales activity in high school…

  6. atotic says:

    Have you read “The Organization Kid” by David Brooks? An interesting read,written before 9/11, about Yale students who are very bright, and docile.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200104/brooks

    I grew up in Playborhood too, with lots of kids hanging out in the street. I liked the freedom, but did not like the violence. There were no enterpreneurs, this was the old Eastern Block.

    I am also looking for a Playborhood in PA or Menlo. Have a 2yo, and working on more.

    Aleks

  7. Mike Lanza says:

    *Great* article! Thanks, Aleks. BTW, re your search, we’re working on some things here that may help you. Also, see the top article on the Playborhood Palo Alto / Menlo Park site. We try to give suggestions on finding Playborhoods around here, and that article has a pretty good one.