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Missed Manners : An Author Decries the Rude, Crude and Unethical Conduct of the Me Generation

December 02, 1990|JACK SMITH

WE OFTEN HEAR these days that our youth are a generation without ethics. They are called The Me Generation, or The Gimme Generation, and are said to care only for consumer goods.

In a recent report, "The Ethics of American Youth," the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics concluded that "today's 18-30 generation is less anchored in bedrock ethical values than any other."

It calls them "IDIs"--since their implicit assumption is, "I deserve it." It warns that IDIs are "more selfish and materialistic than their predecessors and demonstrate a greater willingness to abandon traditional ethical restraints in the pursuit of success or comfort. IDIs cheat and lie more easily than their predecessors, and they are more apt to engage in violent and other socially detrimental irresponsible conduct."

It warns that as this group gains authority and power, its effect could be catastrophic. "Whether they serve as bus drivers, building inspectors, airline mechanics, bankers, surgeons or politicians, their ethical shortcomings will certainly cause significant harm . . . . It is inevitable that we will have a decade of scandals and tragedies caused by unscrupulous me-first conduct."

Though Josephson finds this generation worse than any of its predecessors, I suspect that the younger generation has always given its elders cause for alarm.

In the Fourth Century, the Roman emperor Julian deplored the youth of his time, who mocked the original Cynics by wearing beards and begging. "But where the original Cynics despised wealth, sought virtue, questioned all things in order to find what was true," he wrote, "these imitators mock all things, including the true, using the mask of philosophy to disguise license and irresponsibility."

Coincidentally, Phyllis Poper of Long Beach has sent me a leaflet called "The Boy and His Job," by Dr. Frank Crane, which recently was given to her by her 96-year-old father. It had been given to him when he started on his first job.

It is full of the homilies by which the heroes of Horatio Alger Jr. made their way up in the world, from office boy to chairman of the board.

"If you work for a railroad," it says, "act as if whatever causes loss to the railroad causes loss to you. Be as careful of the property as if you owned it.

"If you are a clerk in a store, get the thought in your mind that it is your store, and be as anxious as the proprietor to keep things neat, to attract customers, and to avoid losses.

"When you work for a man, you do not work for wages. If your eye is only on your pay, you are a second-class worker. You will certainly slight your work, and your employer will get rid of you as soon as he can . . . ."

Dr. Crane was not unaware that some employers could be selfish brutes.

"If your employer is an unjust and selfish person, and takes advantage of you, overworks you, does not appreciate what you do, complains and never says an encouraging word, right there is where you are to show the stuff you are made of. Stick to your principle. Don't be like him. Keep on doing the best you can for him. When you cannot stand it any longer--quit. But never take a man's money and slight his work."

Dr. Crane insisted on devotion to the American work ethic: "If you are to sweep the store, make it as tidy as a particular women's parlor. If you are to tie bundles, learn to make them look as though they had been done up by machinery. Nobody wants a boy who is habitually negligent, slip-shod and careless in his work."

Dr. Crane also emphasized what we would now call old-fashioned manners: "Whenever you meet a woman you know, take off your hat, whether it is the boss' wife or a washwoman. Whenever a woman enters the room where you are, get up from your chair, whether it is a typewriting girl or a princess . . . ."

Of course today there are no such things as typewriting girls, and women themselves discourage chivalry, so young men are not likely to rise from their chairs even when a princess enters a room.

Dr. Crane insisted on punctuality: "Be punctual. Be just a little better than punctual . . . . Start always sooner than is necessary, and allow time for mishaps."

I imagine that Andrew Carnegie followed some such code as Dr. Crane's when he started out as a telegraph messenger, back in the 19th Century. And of course he became one of the nation's richest industrialists and philanthropists, building and endowing hundreds of public libraries.

As a young man I was given to many of Dr. Crane's precepts, and to this day I am almost always on time, and I rise from my chair when a woman enters the room--even if she's only a typewriting girl.

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