Financial freeze or values tipping point?

The financial meltdown gripping our consciousness is just one of many economic and social indicators reaching historic extremes.

Spouses in dual-income families with children spend an astonishingly brief 12 minutes a day talking with each other. Working Americans clock more hours than people in any other industrialized nation, 30 percent of us taking no vacation time at all. We sleep one hour less nightly than we did in 1970. We say that having sex is our single most favorite activity, but we are so busy on our career and debt treadmills that we spend only three minutes a day doing it.

Since 1960, obesity has tripled to one in three of us. One in four of us has no close friends — more than double the friendless rate in 1985. One in four adults is addicted to a substance or behavior. Lifetime risk of major depression for today’s young adults is seven times higher than for those born two generations earlier.

We want Wall Street heads to roll for the toxic debt bomb, but skip past the mirror when assigning blame. Millions of ordinary Americans blatantly falsified their income statements to qualify for loans to buy bigger houses and flashier cars than we could afford. Tax cheating has tripled since 1990. Sixty percent of high school and college students anonymously admit to academic cheating. Ninety percent of job-seekers falsify their resumes. Gallup polling finds a record 80 percent of Americans viewing our moral values as weak and declining.

After three decades of pedaling harder and faster to meet our culture’s increasingly lofty goals and progressively more inaccessible role models, even the economically secure have reached psychological exhaustion. 

I log on to AOL, and while I can slightly customize my welcome screen I cannot bypass the daily flux of iconic images. Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Bono, Albert Einstein. One click takes me to exactingly descriptive profiles of America’s 25 most envied people — all smarter, richer, more famous, and with better hair and sex than mine.

Human interest in high-status people is nothing new. It’s a healthy shortcut in selecting competent leaders. What’s new is that the typical American adult now spends nine hours each day — more than any other waking activity — consuming some form of media. What’s new is that, over the past two to four decades, media culture has grown to saturate our psychologies with the managed images and vivid, intimate detail of these toweringly famous, wealthy and beautiful people.

The saturation has warped our aspirations and made us delusional. Thirty percent of us think we will become famous; 45 percent think we will become wealthy.

What’s also new is the global economy. Its eclipse of local life and endeavor has left most of us with no place to satisfy our healthy need for recognition of our modest but real talents and contributions.

Thirty years ago, the average pay for the top hundred American CEOs was $1.2 million in today’s dollars; by 2006, it was $51 million. Millionaires – 9 million in the U.S — have become almost ordinary in a world with more than 1,000 billionaires.

Last year, the University of Pennsylvania rejected one-third of high school valedictorians and 70 percent of those with near-perfect SAT scores.

In 2008, our hyper-oxygenated goals and expectations finally crashed against our abilities and our ability to pay. The good news is that we are ready to question these goals and role models and, in the process, to redefine the meaning of success in America.

Lyme resident Jim Rubens’ new book, “OverSuccess: Healing the American Obsession with Wealth, Fame, Power and Perfection,” was published in October by Greenleaf Press. Learn more at