Whenever I go to a store – especially somewhere like Lowe’s or Home Depot – I always try to find the oldest person working in the section I need help with. Thanks to the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy wiping out most retiree’s pension funds, it’s usually fairly easy to find a senior citizen who has returned to the workforce, bringing their experience and old-fashioned work ethic with them. If I can’t find an older person, I’ll look for somebody speaking with an accent. Unfortunately for the younger, native-born employees, these old-timers and immigrants are invariably are more helpful, knowledgeable, and hard-working than their Millennial American peers.
Society-wide, the same pattern emerges: people in their 20s and younger who were born in America just don’t understand what it means to work hard. A great cinematic illustration of this was actually done in 1982. In the beginning of Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone’s titular character is defeated by Clubber Lang a younger, more aggressive opponent. Rocky’s trainer, Mickey, says that Rocky has lost “the eye of the tiger” – the burning desire to win – that had driven him at the beginning of his career.
Whenever I meet and speak with first-generation immigrants to the USA, I am reminded of the “eye of the tiger” concept, and I am saddened by the degree to which most Americans have – like rich and famous Rocky – grown over-confident and complacent by comparison. Regardless of their age, race, gender, or nation of origin, newcomers to the USA have, virtually without exception, the attitude that they will do whatever it takes to make the most of this opportunity. For most, this translates into a ferocious work ethic. Go to a mom & pop Chinese, Indian, or Mexican restaurant on a weekday evening, and you will usually see the entire family working, often while the kids simultaneously do homework at a back table.
According to a two-year study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, immigrants “participate in the labor force at higher rates and work longer hours than native-born Americans.” And, although there is no doubt that some immigrants turn their work ethic towards a life of crime, the report concludes that, “immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born population of Americans.”
As a second-generation American myself, this makes perfect sense to me. Most native-born Americans feel entitled to a good life, and therefore put forth only a relatively low degree of effort towards their goals. Immigrants assume that they will have to fight for what they want, put their eyes on the prize, and do whatever it takes to get there. Maybe it’s legal, and maybe it’s not, but the steely-eyed resolve is the same.
Of course, it would be inaccurate to single out the USA. Other industrialized countries, like France, Germany, and the UK, have similar or greater problems with native-born apathy. Really, the dichotomy is between what used to be called “The First World” and the rest of the globe. In industrialized countries with a high standard of living and a fairly robust taxpayer-supported safety net, residents are – compared to the rest of the world – fat and lazy. This is not a criticism, it is an observation of a tactical weakness.
Nowhere is this vulnerability more evident than in the countries currently absorbing waves of refugees from the Middle East. While some unknown percentage of these refugees are undoubtedly jihadis bent on causing mayhem in their host countries, the rest of them are legitimately desperate families fleeing their war-torn homelands. Unfortunately, since there’s no good way to screen millions of people to determine which ones are troublemakers, they’re mainly being herded into refugee camps. This is the perfect litmus test for what Bertold Brecht wryly observed in 1928: “Even honest men may act like sinners, unless they’ve had their customary dinners.” Put people in a situation where they feel desperate, and they will quickly start doing whatever they feel is necessary to care for themselves and their loved ones. The hyper-civilized and largely defenseless populations of Britain and Germany are caught totally off-guard by this. The less-defenseless residents of South Africa are violently clashing with mobs of immigrants.
America has been largely insulated from the refugee crisis, but it would be unwise to ignore the lessons it teaches. First and foremost, what separates a survivor from a victim is not training, tools or technique, it is force of will. Immigrants – and especially refugees – simply do not give a fuck. They will do whatever it takes to survive, without hesitation or apology.
That, in a nutshell, is the eye of the tiger that we more privileged first-worlders have lost. Too many of us, when faced with difficult situations, neither fight nor flee; we waffle. And, predictably, we lose. Sometimes, we lose our lives. If we want to avoid that, we need to be willing to put forth some substantial effort.
This cultural flaccidity is a largely recent phenomenon. Perhaps the entitlement mentality stems from excessive social spending programs, perhaps it’s from the unhelpful influence of mass media, perhaps it’s from helicopter parenting. Whatever the source, the result has been a growing population of native-born people who feel that they really shouldn’t have to work too hard to get what they want, contrasted with a growing population of immigrants who are absolutely willing to work as hard as necessary.
Does it make sense to wall off the country and spend countless tax dollars on trying to deport immigrants? Or does it make more sense to be honest about the fact that we and our children need to wake up and smell the world burning, and realize that – unlike the fictional Rocky Balboa – unless we are start stepping up our game, there may not be a chance for a rematch.