Throughout most of its history, American culture has run with the concept of the autonomous individual as no other culture has ever done. One of the signal features of American exceptionalism is the fierce belief that, if they are willing to work hard enough, people can achieve whatever they set their minds to.
But that sense of autonomy has been deteriorating for at least a half-century.
One of the most important psychological measures for predicting success in life (apart from IQ score) is one’s place on the “locus of control” scale. This positions people on a spectrum from “highly internal”—i.e., believing that one’s fate is within one’s own control—to “highly external”—i.e., believing that one’s fate is determined by outside forces. In other words, the locus-of-control scale is a direct measure of the sense of autonomy. According to a meta-analysis of 97 studies with results running from 1960 to 2002, locus of control among college students fell steadily over the course of that four-decade-plus span, with the average student of 2002 displaying a lower (less “internal”) sense of autonomy than did 80 percent of college students in 1960.
Apart from the social-science data, indicators in everyday life reveal how much the traditional American veneration of individuals triumphing by dint of perseverance and hard work has faded. A few decades ago, it would have been unthinkable for a president of the United States to make President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech, celebrating the supremacy of the collective and denigrating the contribution of the individual. It would have been political suicide. No longer.
The data on sense of purpose tell a similar story of decline. We know from questions asked by the General Social Survey that people attach more and more importance to job security and short working hours and less and less importance to work that “gives a feeling of accomplishment.” The government’s Current Population Survey tells us that the percentage of employed males who work fewer than 40 hours a week has been rising even in the healthiest economies, and so has the percentage of males who aren’t in the labor force even when they’re in their prime working years and even in periods when the economy has had jobs for anyone who has wanted to work for any number of hours per week.
Those trends began among men with lower levels of education. In the last decade, they have been increasing among the college-educated as well. Among the latter, the percentage of men who work more than 48 hours a week has been decreasing since the turn of the century. There do remain niches in the economy where people routinely work long hours—new hires at prestigious hedge funds and investment banks, associates at top law firms seeking to make partner, and in much of the IT industry. There also remain many people in other fields who love their vocations and work long hours all their lives. But for American culture as a whole, the drive to find meaning in work and to do whatever it takes to be the best appears to have been diminishing.
What accounts for the declines in purpose and autonomy? I have already hinted at the answer, which resides in the second place to look for the sources that ignite or suppress the fires of innovation: namely, the cultural milieu in which potential innovators grow up.
One plausible part of the answer is secularization. If you have been put on earth for a purpose, the universe must have a purpose, which in turn necessitates some form of God. Since 1972, the proportion of Americans aged thirty to forty-nine who are explicitly nonbelievers has quintupled, reaching 20 percent in 2010. Another 30 percent in the same year said they had a religion but attended worship services no more than once a year. Both of these trends have accelerated in the last two decades.
Secularization is particularly evident among intellectuals. In the population at large, explicit atheists may be at only 20 percent, but among members of the National Academy of Sciences, 65 percent in one poll said they did not believe in God. To put it another way, the people who are best positioned to be great innovators in science and technology are precisely the people who are now least likely to have a sense of vocation coming from God. Most of the people who make it into the National Academy of Sciences have had a strong sense of vocation without religion, so religion is not a necessary condition for a sense of vocation. But it helps. The question to be asked is: how much has secularization contributed to vocational ennui among those with the intellectual potential to become great scientists or innovators?
Growing wealth and security are also implicated. For the first time in human history, a high proportion of the most talented people in advanced societies get advanced educations, find good careers, and take prosperity and security for granted. Furthermore, affluence and technology have proliferated attractive leisure alternatives: second homes, trips abroad, and a multitude of time-intensive avocations that were unknown a half-century ago and that compete with spending 60 hours a week in the laboratory.
Combine all this with a worldview that says there is no God, no destiny, no ultimate good, and it is natural that people develop what I have elsewhere called the “Europe Syndrome,” after the Western European countries where it is most visible: a way of life based on the belief that humans are collections of chemicals activated by conception and deactivated by death, and that the purpose of life is to while away the intervening years as pleasantly as possible, with as little trouble as possible.