"You should aspire to [something]."

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2016


"You should aspire to [something]. It's the [community] Way."

This thinking defines a kind of rite of passage. And it is one that strongly shapes how a community lives because community members are willing to invest considerable community resources to encourage it. Here are some examples from the American community:

1850's -- "You should work hard to own a farm. It's the American Way."
1950's -- "You should work hard to own a house. It's the American Way."
2010's -- "You should work hard to get a college degree. It's the American Way."

(And a more humorous version, "If you can't be a doctor, marry one.")

Again, these rites of passage are important because the community will devote lots of resource to making them happen, but that resource is not necessarily well spent.

Instinctive Thinking at work

These aspirations are rooted in instinctive thinking. Success at them signals two things:

o The person has worked hard and well, and achieved a significant goal in their life.

o They are likely to become a pillar of the community, not some kind of trouble-maker.


The instinctive thinking that follows is that the community has been improved by this person and their accomplishments. And because of this, it is worthwhile for the community to devote resources to help other community members achieve this goal. The stronger this thinking gets, the more this goal becomes a community rite of passage.

Surprise twists

Aspiring to these goals also adds some surprise twists to this rite of passage business.

The farm instinct lead to the Homesteading Act. And, surprise, a lot of horse owning and horse tending skill.
The house instinct lead to the FHA, Freddie and Fannie government and quasi-government agencies. And, surprise, a lot of car owning and driving skill.
The college degree instinct has lead to proliferating student loans. And, surprise, steadily rising higher education costs.

Mix in government

What these have in common is that once an objective has become agreed upon, the community will further agree to spend a lot of resource to make it happen. And, quite often, they will have the community government control the resources spent.

This starts out well, but because this aspiration is backed by instinctive thinking the feedback mechanisms that measure effectiveness are usually weak. The result of that weakness is that over time the good intention gets more expensive, less effective, and subject to regulatory capture, corruption and other system gaming abuses. And, after a few decades, the organizations set up to promote this good intention have twisted the market for it -- what is being offered and what is effective at accomplishing the goal diverge.

In worst case scenarios, such as aspiring to own farms and houses, big crashes can ensue when the marketplaces get just too wacky.

And... people will move on. As technology and society change, the rites of passage change -- the "you should" becomes something new. But the old government agencies and policies will persist long after the aspirations have changed. This leads to even more market twisting, but usually of a lower-profile sort -- the community is not paying much attention anymore.

What's next?

Rites of passage change with changes in a community's style of prosperity and available technologies. So, what's coming next in America's rites of passage?

The big changes coming that will affect rites of passage are more automation of manufacturing, services and transportation, and driverless cars. The automation means that the kinds of work people can get will change dramatically -- yelling "Get a job!" at someone twenty years from now will have a whole new meaning. This means that getting a college education to get a better job will take on a whole new meaning, and, surprise, it may become mostly irrelevant. The driverless cars mean that getting a driver's license and owning a car will become as optional as learning to ride horses and owning them.

New rites are going to replace these. What they will be will be surprising.


Rites of passage change with a community's style of prosperity and available technologies. What "You should work hard to..." will be referring to in twenty years is going to be quite different from what it is today.

Be prepared for the change.



--The End--