The Disorganization Kid

January 26, 2018

The common perception of a “successful life” is nearly impossible to reach, and it is leading to cultural disconnects and unfulfilling outcomes for many young people.

David Brooks wrote about this issue almost 20 years ago in The Atlantic in his article “The Organization Kid,” a critique of the culture of perfection and forced wholesomeness found in middle to upper-middle-class families in the United States. The culture produces amateur Renaissance kids who volunteer for multiple volunteer organizations, play multiple sports and receive high honors in high school before moving on to a top-tier university. They then take “honorable” jobs and create, therefore, a stable life. Parents heavily manage social interactions outside of academics or extracurriculars. Exposure to life is scheduled and safe. Sleep, a necessity for healthy development, is sacrificed. Many Brandeis students are the products of this lifestyle.

Since Brooks wrote in 2001, the “Organization Kid” lifestyle has become the norm among affluent groups, and most kids are not able to fathom life without this model. The young people Brooks knew in 2001 may now have children of their own. They may be transmitting the lifestyle through this next generation. These people, and those who followed them in the 2000’s, now form the ranks of the “aspirational class,” which seeks societally endorsed success over health and personal growth.

Members of the aspirational class now occupy leadership positions and are starting families, so it is important to question the lifestyle’s morals and outcomes. This generation’s mental health is declining and the tireless pursuit of the high-paying dream jobs engenders this mental health decline.

However, the Organization Culture is not all bad. This culture of perfection benefits those with discipline and industriousness, qualities that should be encouraged, allowing those who nurture them to rise above their instincts and seize the opportunities their society grants them. Personal discipline can be freeing if it is cultivated, especially in an age of mass distraction fed by electronic devices. Such discipline can not only cultivate material success, but also a healthy mindset free of ever-present modern distractions. Disciplined perfectionists succeed in the school environment, and then are required to build themselves into the image of the new-age Ubermensch who masters grades as well as activities.

However, discipline and perfectionist success is not evenly distributed. Kids are sorted into groups based on their levels of achievement in high school. In principle, the smartest kids should take harder classes to fit their needs and abilities. It’s fair to let them get ahead. One unfortunate side effect of the sorting is that, often, kids and adults tend to interact with like-minded people and develop an in-group out-group mentality, looking down on kids from other classes.

This in-group attitude can lead to egotism and harm personal relationships. Personal image competition turns would-be friends into assets or liabilities in regard to someone’s ability to get the right job or get into the right college. Raising “Organization Kids” gets them into college, where admissions decisions are often based on a perfectionist view of an applicant’s grades and extracurriculars. If they go to the right college, they will be eligible for competitive jobs filled with other Organization Kids, or skip all of the job-market stress just by having connections. Kids who are hard-working and capable, but are imperfect in the eyes of the culture are shuffled to the bottom of the job market. Because of this, the values of the Organization Generation do not produce the most capable workforce, despite the emphasis on perfection.

It would be easy to disparage the whole thing for putting unrealistic standards on many kids, but that would be too easy. A society is much better off if people aspire to better themselves, and participating in many extracurriculars can bring new experiences, better health and friendships. Getting good grades in school can teach valuable skills needed to be functional adults. Of course, we all want stable futures, and we also want the same for our kids. Wealthy parents, who have the resources to ensure success, play the system built for their children’s success.On the other hand, less fortunate kids must rely on grit and luck.

Despite this unfairness, we should uphold a value system that encourages competence. Not everybody can win, nor should win; that would be wrong in itself. But the Organization Generation’s values do not promote a helpful hierarchy of competence.

It is possible the upbringing afforded to the Organization Kid does not prepare us for the real world. Maybe instead the expectations for getting into good schools do not match the reality of obtaining work, nor do they necessarily encourage the social tact and intuition needed to succeed in the end.

Despite this issue, the real problem is the mentality the perfection system comes from. People who grew up through it seem to think the big city is the only place to be successful. Many rural trades that require skill and competency are now just ‘things other people do.’ No wonder there is a several-million-job-wide skills gap.

The attitude seems to be a natural extension of the American Dream to continue to do better than one’s parents, but to go from middle or upper-middle class to anywhere above is very difficult, and the job market is shifting to favor different skills. To not try to improve one’s standing from generation-upon-generation would be problematic to the American Dream mindset. At this point, though, the effort and anxiety to reach the next rung may not always be worth it if the next rung is so high. Local opportunities are missed by completely competent people because the big city is the norm. Trade school can be looked at as a failure, made worse as classism deepens.

Although discipline and hard work should be lauded, perfection is impossible. Moral character, easier routes to financial stability and independence can all too often be sidelined by perfectionist conceptions of success. The problems that result, such as unemployment and classism, have materialized.

The goal of future generations should not be to tear down our society’s hierarchy, but rather to find alternative perspectives that reduce pressure on kids and ensures success that maintains communities rather than competitive environments. Colin Woodward addresses this pull between individual liberty and the common good in his new book American Character, relevant especially in an era of high social class sorting. Making one’s own way is a reasonable facet of the American way, but when it is fought for with such vigor at the expense of personal health and the American employment system, it can be a problem. It might be beneficial to allow kids to sleep a little more and parents to lose less sleep over them doing so.

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