Fear of Freedom?

Stuart Schneiderman links to an article by a therapist who has a lot of experience working with millennials

On any given day, a handful of millennials will come into my office and express their most pressing concerns: “I’m worried I’ll never make enough money to retire.” “I feel like a failure.” “I don’t know if I’m setting up my adult life the right way.”

But the complaint they bring up the most? “I have too many choices and I can’t decide what to do. What if I make the wrong choice?”

Now, I think that ‘generational’ explanations of social phenomena should be taken with multiple carloads of salt:  individual differences are IMO much more significant than generational differences.  And the people this therapist has been working with are not just millennials, but San Francisco area millennials.  Still, this pushback against having too many choices is unpleasantly reminiscent of the young German who was quoted as saying, shortly before the outbreak of World War II: “We Germans are so happy.  We are free of freedom.”

To the extent that this phenomenon is real and is general, I would suspect several factors of being implicated. Specifically:

***The focus on “self-esteem building”, which seems to have the effect of producing people whose self-esteem is brittle and cannot withstand failure or contradiction.

***The trend toward child-raising in organized group settings…usually for-profit organized group settings…which may tend to create more orientation toward group conformity and less individuality than the more traditional “artisanal” at-home child raising.

***Increasing years of schooling, which can delay growing up.  Peter Drucker observed that when you’re in school, it’s all about you, unlike the working world where it’s all about doing things that are of value to others.  (FWIW, Drucker also said he observed striking levels of immaturity in many medical students because of this factor.)

Anecdotal evidence only, but I have observed that people with many years of education–specifically, people with graduate degrees–are often reluctant to try new approaches to things.  Whether it’s an MBA or a Masters in Computer Science, they often want to stick close to the paradigms they were given in the classroom.  It would be interesting for someone to systematically study the relationship between education and mental rigidity.

***Finally, there is general social change and disorganization.  Stuart writes:  “Back in the day, when society was organized and where people understood their duties and obligations, these decisions were far less difficult and far less onerous”…the decisions were less onerous, but of course many people felt constrained–and often were constrained–in ways they did not want to be.

Someone writing in an aviation magazine observed that “if you do anything with your airplane that is not consistent with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook, then you are a test pilot.”  In a society, the equivalent of the POH is the aggregate of laws, customs, and implicit expectations that guide behavior.  There is no doubt that any society’s POH needs constant updating, and sometime major changes–but when major changes do occur, they will be disorienting to many people, and it seems that a nontrivial number of them will react by wishing for more constraints.

Some people thrive as test pilots–either of aircraft or in a societal setting–but many do not, including many people who would be perfectly adequate or even excellent pilots in a more-defined setting.

One of the major problems we have in America today is that so many of the people who have taken it upon themselves to totally rewrite the societal POH are people who are lacking in practical experience, historical knowledge, and ‘skin in the game.’  To continue the aviation analogy, it is as if a POH was rewritten by people who had no background in aeronautical engineering, no experience or minimal experience in flying aircraft, and (in many cases) absolutely no intent of either flying or flying in those aircraft being operated in conformity with their documents.

What proportion of the people in a society can lose belief in the value of individual freedom before they destroy that freedom for everyone, including those who do value it, and how close are we to that point?



28 thoughts on “Fear of Freedom?”

  1. I maintain that Columbine radically changed America. It led to a significant fraction of parents completely smothering their children in a misguided attempt to keep them “safe” and has created a generation of emotionally stunted “adults” who are completely unable to function in society, demanding “safe spaces”, etc., and expecting their hands to be held at all times, and “Someone” to fix all of their problems.

  2. I don’t see what is so different from when I was that age and even to this day. I surely spent time worrying about all of these decisions, who hasn’t.

    It’s as if their life is one of these deep space shots where if the aim is off by the slightest amount, you will miss the target by a million miles 10 years later. First, at that point, you don’t really know what you should be aiming at. Second, you’ll have lots of chances to change course. Pretty much the only irrevocable action is suicide.

    I remember a councilor in High School that said the average person would have five different jobs in their life. I think the person that decides what they want to do at 18 and continues until they retire is the real outlier. Not that I don’t sometimes envy people with such clear goals.

    Maybe they have been so tightly scheduled, constantly coached and directed that they never developed confidence and never learn the difference between what’s expected of them and what they really want. Yet at the same time, they are choosing to disfigure themselves in various trendy ways, take any pill that a random person might hand them. Maybe it’s two different populations, I don’t think so.

    Life is what happens when your making plans.

  3. MCS…”It’s as if their life is one of these deep space shots where if the aim is off by the slightest amount, you will miss the target by a million miles 10 years later.”

    Interesting analogy. Of course, the consequences of being slightly off in the initial aim differ very greatly depending on whether you do or do not have the capability of correcting the flight path after the launch. I think probably people have less confidence in their ability to apply future corrections than they once did.

  4. My point is that life is a drunkard’s walk. You can’t plot it out. You meet and marry the spouse from hell when three chairs over is your life’s true companion, or vice versa. If you don’t have the confidence to know this and carry on anyway, you’ll have to join a cloister or spend your life in a small padded room mumbling to yourself.

  5. My experience bears out the therapist’s observations. I taught first-year law school classes for 25 years so I had contact with hundreds of students in their early 20s over a long span of years. In the last 3-5 years before my retirement (2016), I noticed a stark change in how students dealt with uncertainty. The millennials were, frankly, terrified by it.

    Well, if you’ve ever been to law school, you know the first year is all about uncertainty; the running joke is that the answer to every question you’re asked in class is “It depends.” Virtually the students I ever taught found this befuddling and frustrating, but the millennials were virtually paralyzed by the fact that there was no clear, right answer. I had to repeatedly reassure them that they would inevitably make mistakes in stumbling their way through but that that was part of the process and all the teachers (and all full-blown lawyers) knew it.

    I’m not sure how they got this way, but here’s my theory. This was a highly selective school, so the students were an elite group. If you looked at their resumes, they were filled with prestigious schools, admirable internships, studies abroad, inspiring volunteer work, etc. In other words, they got where they were by always making the approved, rewarded, desired choice. And it had always been fairly obvious what the choice was. So they’d simply had no experience with ambiguity and, for the most part, failure.

    I’m a fairly risk-averse person myself, but I felt profoundly sorry for the students whose lives had taught them to avoid all risk at any cost. What a dessicated existence that must be. No wonder they are so anxious.

  6. MCS

    Maybe they have been so tightly scheduled, constantly coached and directed that they never developed confidence and never learn the difference between what’s expected of them and what they really want. Yet at the same time, they are choosing to disfigure themselves in various trendy ways, take any pill that a random person might hand them. Maybe it’s two different populations, I don’t think so.

    I think there’s less of a dichotomy than you think to this. I look at it like a framework. Social exceptions and family expectations all provided some sort of structure to build your life around. Even if it meant that either part or most of it was in opposition to those expectations at least you had them to give a direction to your rebellion. I think you’re correct that there was more freedom of experimentation in the past because parents were more likely to feel that you were in a phase that you’d grow out of. Now more parents are extremely concerned that a kid’s entire life trajectory is going to be determined starting with what preschool they attend but that’s, somewhat paradoxically, a function of parents trying to use those choices as a substitute for a firm social foundation. The ‘trans’ phenomenon in particular seems to be a case of kids who feel the lack of structure most acutely grabbing on to whatever guidance society is willing to provide, even if it is counterproductive for them.

  7. Christopher B….”Now more parents are extremely concerned that a kid’s entire life trajectory is going to be determined starting with what preschool they attend but that’s, somewhat paradoxically, a function of parents trying to use those choices as a substitute for a firm social foundation.”

    What strikes me is that a lot of parents are obsessed with getting their kids the “skills”, credentials, and connections that they think will make those kids successful, but they are much less concerned with the meta-skills, or what used to be called ‘character’.

  8. Jordan Peterson talks about this a lot. Many young people freed from traditional responsibilities, and from the corresponding moral struggles associated with them, are now so disconnected from moral truths that they’re unable to commit to anything, afraid to apply themselves, and every interaction with the world feels like taking a drink from a fire hose. He mentioned this point about half way through his latest interview with Bishop Barron. The best remedy is just going back to square one. Taking on a simple and humble task (in his example simply cleaning their room), focusing on the good in that, and then applying that recognition of goodness elsewhere in their lives. That’s how practical experience grows into practical wisdom.

  9. It led to a significant fraction of parents completely smothering their children in a misguided attempt to keep them “safe”

    About that time, or a little earlier, the “Missing children on milk cartons” thing created a hysteria about “Stranger Danger.” I grew up in the 1940s in Chicago, then a nice middle class neighborhood. I walked to school, crossing a busy street, when in kindergarten. My mother sent a little boy who lived across the street to walk with me the first day

    How many people send their kids to walk to school now?

  10. Though “Esteem Building” is listed first, I’m not sure it’s importance and influence here can be overstated. Rather than developing a skill or achieving anything of even minor note, what’s inculcated into young people today from all angles is an artificially constructed self-esteem, borne from simply being told to have it. It’s no wonder we’ve got a generation of snowflakes when most of the mentors are Stuart Smalley.

    They haven’t developed any of the natural coping skills that come from dealing with the repeated failures required to achieve something. And we’re not talking serious achievement here, but simple things like passing a test the first time, constructing a paper that’s reasonably grammatically correct and makes a cogent point, or practicing a sport or instrument enough to demonstrate observable skill. Instead, they’re given multiple do-overs in school, awarded points (or trophies) for participation, and generally shielded from failure from cradle adulthood. At the nation’s “premier” institution of higher learning, the average student can expect to receive an A-.

    Abandoning this therapeutic aspect to education and learning, and focusing on educating and developing would go a long way to fixing everything the follows on the list above.

    Anyway, excellent piece with some insights I hadn’t considered. I enjoyed my first visit here.

  11. What do you think about Drucker’s comment about the exceptional immaturity of the typical med school students, based on your experience?

    Drucker, of course, was talking about an earlier generation of medical students. Many were “grinds” who did not do much but study. There was a book written many years ago about U of Kansas Medical school. It was called, “Boys in White” and is long out of print. Now, 60% of medical students are female.

    I was a bit of a curmudgeon as a teacher but the students seemed to like my style. I was much more into stuff like doing physical exams and asking real questions about symptoms. There is a strong trend going on now to “Feminize” medical education. A lot about feelings. Less about Anatomy and bacteriology.

    I was in UC, Irvine medical school’s admissions department but only as an interviewer. The women in the committee staff told me I was the only one who turned in interview reports on time. I got the impression that most faculty interviewers wanted candy stripers or some other feelings related experience for applicants. I met some very interesting people applying. A young man who worked in an aid station for the Iranian army in the Iran Iraq war. He spoke good English, got over here and worked the night shift for Sun Microsystems while he went to San Jose State days. He would be a good doctor. Another was a young Vietnamese woman who was a research assistant with an MS in biology. She remembered her father lifting her from her bed and taking her to a canoe offshore as they fled to a refugee camp in the Philippines.

    I’m not sure my ideas were shared by full time faculty.

  12. As regarding young adults who cannot even handle the slightest criticism in the conduct of their professional duties – I read the story on PJM about the young woman (in a public relations office!) having a meltdown after her writing assignment was vetted by her editor/supervisor.
    Not just a work-place melt-down, but the young woman called her Mommy, wanted Mommy to complain to her editor/supervisor’s boss, and apparently Mommy obliged her Little Darling … just because said editor/supervisor was mean an’ stuff to Little Darling …
    Yeah, the kid has got a serious problem, and I’d guess that it started at home and longer ago than just yesterday…

    Gory details here – https://pjmedia.com/vodkapundit/millennial-writer-cries-for-mother-at-work-when-editor-corrects-her-spelling/

  13. FYI, today is the timely birthday of James Cagney. He had a tough early life. A quote from his Wikipedia article: “It was good for me. I feel sorry for the kid who has too cushy a time of it. Suddenly he has to come face-to-face with the realities of life without any mama or papa to do his thinking for him.”

    Prophetic, no?

  14. Sgt Mom…I remember reading something several years ago about a guy whose mom called his boss to complain that his bonus wasn’t big enough. Best part is that the guy was a *commissioned salesman*, so the amount of his bonus was most likely determined by a strict formula based on his sales.

  15. Where I work, practically everyone is either just graduated, about to graduate and in their first professional job. There’s a steady trickle leaving for grad school. I just haven’t seen the sort of stubborn fragility that makes the papers. Mistakes get made, it is clearly understood that you won’t get fired or even reprimanded for making them but will be gone in a heartbeat for trying to cover one up. It’s always a surprise when that happens, at least to me.

    These are all science or engineering of some sort and that might be the difference. On that sample, I’d have to say that they are at least as capable of coping as I was at the same age, maybe better. They don’t have a problem with being helped when they come up against something they don’t understand or being told their wrong.

    I may be drummed out of the Old Grouch Society but I haven’t had the very picturesque experiences I’ve read about. A therapist is going to hear a lot more about the doubts and what ifs that crash down on all of us from time to time.

  16. MCS…good to hear!

    Do I understand properly that these people are mostly college graduates, but have *not* gone to grad school yet?

    Also, can you say how they get recruited?…do the functional and project managers make their own hiring decisions, or is there some kind of centralized recruiting or college relations team that selects and acquisres the people?

  17. Mostly BS’s as well as a couple still in school. I’m sort of off to the side where I only know what I hear in random conversations. Advanced degrees up to PHD in management

    I’m not really sure how we hire, not what I do. I think mostly just places like Monster, maybe even Craig’s List. A lot of universities in the area so it’s hard to swing a cat in the spring without hitting a few grads looking for a job. We’re not that big so it usually come down to the managers and supervisors getting together to decide.

    Again from the outside looking in, it seems harder to find people more from competition than lack of supply in the last couple of years.

  18. Continuing with the ‘PIlot’s Operating Handbook’ angle: it seems that the characteristics of, and even the existence of, the MCAS feature on the Boeing 737 Max 8 were not properly disclosed in the information provided to the pilots or the airlines operating this airplane. IMO, it is reasonably likely that the two crashes in which this system is implicated could have been avoided if the pilots in question had been in possession of this information.

    And in terms of the *societal* POH…a message strongly sent to high school students and younger for the last 30 years or so has been, ‘get a college degree so you can get a good job and make good money’…without adding texture in terms of *what kind of a degree* might be best, the importance of *actually learning something*, the true costs, the risks, and the alternatives. The consequence has been a lot of people with frustrating and low-paid jobs and large debt overhangs.

    As another example, a message strongly sent to girls and young women has been ‘having fun and building your career are the important things, there will be plenty of time to have children if you want’, without any attempt to point out the realities of the fertility window. Indeed, I’ve read that attempts to point out these realities have been strongly objected to by some feminist organizations. There seem to be a significant number of women who regret having listened to these messages, after it is too late.

  19. The MCAS disaster is just such a preposterous fiasco. Every single decision that lead up to it was wrong. It will live forever in the annals of what not to do.

    An exceptional pilot can overcome losing both engines on takeoff and manage to land on a river, hardly getting anyone’s feet wet. While the pilots of two functional aircraft with only a minor malfunction were unable to keep them from flying into the ground. This isn’t to criticize them, they were fully qualified and fairly well experienced but they couldn’t unravel what was happening fast enough to save their plane.

    Boeing has tried to defend itself with the assertion that the behavior of the planes was the same as any time the trim system ran away, that correcting that was part of the standard training. By not telling the pilots about the system and how it worked, they put them too far from including that possibility in there mental model. The pilots would not have started to apply trim at that point in the flight and didn’t know that the plane would without a command. There’s some evidence that this has happened to American and Southwest pilots where they were able to cope.

    On the other hand, life doesn’t come with a manual. At least outside of religion, where there seems to be significant differences of opinion as well as a lot of undocumented features and lack of authoritative errata. What they really need is a BS detector. At the very least, anyone going into hock for a degree in English or lit should realize that they will need to have an idea how that will help them make a living; or be independently wealthy. James Lileks remarked that there weren’t any want ads for poets when he graduated.

    The situation in STEM only appears more straight forward. One of my work mates has a degree in bio-something, he’s actually writing automation software that has nothing to do with any living thing. Another person I know went through Vet school and has the debt to prove it. He’s working in the family plumbing business. I’ve heard of doctors and lawyers that never practice and end up in some very strange occupations.

    Basically, we need to realize that we ought to approach anyone that claims their system is fool proof and guaranteed with the same skepticism as approaching a three-card-Monte layout.

  20. There is another problem that has recently surfaced with MCAS, based on reports I’ve read. It seems that the pilot’s trim switch does not directly command the trim actuators, but rather sends requests to the flight control computer, which then issues…or should issue…the physical actuation signals. But, the flight control computer apparently can become overloaded…more work than it can handle…and whatever priority system is in use does not always give the trim switch attention in time to avoid significant delays in the actuation.

    Maybe Boeing should see if they can hire Margaret Hamilton for a while to review the software architecture:


  21. I’ve heard of doctors and lawyers that never practice and end up in some very strange occupations.

    You are going to see more. I read an article a few years ago about an ER doc who built up a career as a general contractor while doing ER part time.

    The younger docs are trapped by student debt. I used to ask my students how many were using loans for tuition? $57,000 year, All raised their hands. I would then ask how many considered the military which would pay their tuition. No hands.

  22. The trim thing gets better. The trim tabs are operated by jack screws and are self locking. The drill on correcting a run away where the motor doesn’t stop when it’s supposed to is to shut off the system and use a manual crank located on the side of the console to crank it back manually. Given that the trim tabs are located at the very back of the horizontal stabilizer and the system is totally mechanical, there is concern that some pilots don’t have the strength to operate them. Then, it seems that the trim tabs at their extreme position require more force to overcome than the fly-by-wire control system will let the pilots apply.

    The trim tabs are small flaps on the bigger stabilizer that use the force of the air passing over to move the bigger surface. The idea is that you use the trim tab to make small adjustments in the attitude of the plane to correct for things like balance so that the pilot will not have to hold steady force against the controls.

    The situation that presented itself in the two crashes was that the trim had maxed out nose down, the control system wouldn’t let the pilots force the nose up. If they had realized that the trim was to blame, I don’t know if they would have had time to crank it far enough back to save themselves. The way the system was designed insured that the sensor failure would first manifest near the ground as soon as the flaps were retracted after take off.

    And now, even if they had figured it out, it might not have shut down anyway. They couldn’t have fought against the motors. Every. Single. Decision.

    Whatever happens to Boeing, you know it won’t happen fast enough or hard enough for any of the E-suite pukes that are actually responsible to feel any real pain or suffer more than a slight loss of income.

  23. IF the pilot knew about the existence of MCAS, and IF he also knew about the possible delays affecting operation of the manual thumb trim switch, then I think recovery should have been possible as follows:

    –turn off the power-operated trim system (I believe the only rapid way to do this is to turn off the whole power-operated function, rather than just turning off MCAS) immediately.

    –use the manual trim wheel quickly to raise the nose, before air loads make it impossible to do for normal strength of 1 or 2 pilots

    …but this knowledge was apparently lacking….I don’t think Boeing itself was aware of the flight control computer-caused delays.

    In fairness, I doubt if there was any Boeing executive or group of executives who looked at the various factors that could lead to an MCAS-involved crash and said, ‘Yeah, might happen every 10 years or so, but too expensive to fix.” More likely, it was a matter of the way design and decision-making functions were disseminated across organizations and geographies and of failure to employ certain tools (load testing of the flight control computer software, for example) that should have been used.

  24. That is the procedure except that there was no way to shut off the MCAS. Remember the pilots didn’t know about it, so how could they shut it off. The other thing to bear in mind is that this was happening just after take off, a couple of thousand feet AGL. The system activated when the flaps were retracted which is shortly after the landing gear are retracted and is done as air speed increases. Close to the ground and close to minimum flying speed, what could go wrong.

    But wait! there’s more:

  25. Yes, you can shut off the MCAS…with the stab trim cutout switches…but it also prevents you from using the electric trim.


    At the time the linked post and the FAA Airworthiness Directive were written, it was apparently not known that flight control computer overloads could delay the effect when using the pilot’s electric trim switch. So the recommended recovery procedure was to first use the electric trim to neutralize the control column forces and THEN to shut off the electric trim and use the manual trim. Would work IF the flight control computer got around to executing the commanded trim movement in time.

  26. The mechanics are a lot different than what I was picturing from other aircraft. I’ll have to study it a lot more. One thing I did catch was that the autopilot could command the stabilizer to push the nose down much harder than the pilots could with manual control.

    It doesn’t change my opinion, although it underlines the reason why pilots need to be much better informed of the details of the plane they’re flying than someone driving a car. A switch that doesn’t turn off what it is appears to, or, as bad, operates only after some random delay makes it worse.

    Again, after a quick skim, there is a line that says that the power trim will be disabled when the crank handles are folded out. Of course, that might be, probably is, subject subject to the same latency.

    I find it unfathomable that such a blatant latency issue was allowed or missed. Even the fairly simple systems I deal with have to respond to certain events in microseconds, others in milliseconds. Dealing with human interaction, anything that stretches past a tenth of a second is a problem because that is when the operator starts to notice.

    As I said before, there are so many layers of stupidity to this that it will be presented in engineering and management classes for centuries. Right alongside Tacoma Narrows and Hyatt Regency.

    There’s a lot of money at stake in us civilians believing the “experts” when they assure us something is safe. Until now, I avoided flying because I hated to feel like a sardine stuffed into an ever smaller can. I wasn’t worried about the plane. This doesn’t make me any more anxious to start again and I’m sure not in line for a self driving car.

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