While reading the introduction to the text The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning by philosophers Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko I was taken aback by a statistic concerning a difference between college freshmen in the 1970s and today. Back then more than 80 percent of the freshmen said that it was important for them to find meaning and purpose in life. These days that goal has been replaced by a different one: more than 80 percent of all freshmen today want to become rich.
This fact can lead us to one of two conclusions, both sad. Either today’s young people equate wealth with meaning and purpose, or, and this is even less optimistic, they believe that there is no meaning or purpose in life so they might as well get rich.
While I pondered this state of affairs I was cautious to avoid the “back in my day” approach. I began my college career with the goal of becoming a wealthy, and therefore happy, lawyer. Only through the intervention of Mike Pennock ’64 and the support of my now-wife Ann did I come around and become a part of the 80 percent who wanted meaning and purpose. A generation later, both of my children, and my son-in-law, were much more idealistic in their life goals than I. Their choices of history, graphic design, and English major were not part of some alchemical formula for turning a liberal or fine arts education into gold.
Also, I have witnessed a rising trend among our Saint Ignatius students over the past four decades in their search for a sense of meaning and purpose through service work - especially with the homeless through the Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry and with the grieving through the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry. I pray that these young men will not strive for riches at the expense of concern for the least of their sisters and brothers.
Maybe it is simply the growing sense of insecurity about the future of the world, the country, the economy, health related issues, and the rest that have pulled the minds of young people away from the belief that life can have purpose and meaning. Drs. Sullivan and Blaschko cite studies that show that a majority of college students feel very lonely (67.4 percent), have overwhelming anxiety (66.4 percent), and believe that things are hopeless (57.5 percent). And all of these statistics were compiled before COVID.
Plus, when you take into account that this generation is the main target in the most intense program of self-indulgent, consumerist social engineering in the history of the world then it makes sense that things like meaning and purpose take a back seat to monetary security. This fits in well with the psychological community’s observation that this generation feels very isolated and on their own and without the emotional safety-nets necessary to believe that there is someone out there to help them if they fail.
The fifth deadly sin is that of greed or avarice, and it includes not only the longing for more and more wealth, but more and more of the social currency, status, and power that accompany it. How naive it would be to chalk up this tendency in the younger generation to a “back in my day” mentality. Compared with the minefields intentionally planted for this generation of young adults, “back in my day” was a picnic.
Plus, because children learn first and foremost from their elders, their susceptibility to the influence of “elders” on social and other media has become all-pervasive. Parents, grandparents, guardians, teachers, coaches, clergy, and all of the other stabilizing forces that helped my and previous generations are left in the wake of (and I am disgusted that I even have to type this word) “influencers” on social media.
The post-modern world of the affluent West mitigates against their role in their childrens’ lives, and so parents who want their children to find meaning and purpose in generosity and not in wealth need to be visible models of the behavior they desire.
Whenever parents are generous with their time and share in the lives of their children they are teaching them a valuable lesson. Whenever parents take their children to Mass, actively participate, and put an envelope in the collection basket they are teaching them a valuable lesson. Whenever parents volunteer with their children they are teaching them a valuable lesson. Whenever parents speak positively to their children about the experience of loving the least of our neighbors they are teaching them a valuable lesson. Whenever parents talk about “honest work that makes the world a better place” they are teaching them a valuable lesson.
There should be a sense of idealism and altruism among young people, especially those beginning their college years. Jaded 18-year-olds probably won’t get better as they learn about life from the cynical world that thrives on our college campuses, and so it is incredibly important, even essential, that they be inoculated against greed from their earliest days. And needless to say, every parent has the responsibility to administer that vaccine above all others.