In full swing now are summer camps, one of the more blessed bits of Americana in my view. Of the many camps that I attended growing up, the most unique had to be what I now refer to as “business camp.”
Laugh all you want about kids spending a week of their summer running a small snack business or attending etiquette dinners.
But this camp, known now as 21st Century Leaders, gave a small-town boy entree to the board room of Coca-Cola and the sets of CNN — truly horizon-broadening experiences. My fellow campers hailed from all parts of Georgia and were diverse in every way identifiable. We had fun and learned a lot.
This experience has come back to my mind often in recent months, as the economy has tanked and business has become something of a public villain. I wonder how our fits of industry-bashing will affect the national psyche in the long run.
In the mid-1990s, it didn’t seem odd to put a friendly, summer-camp face on business. Long past were the painful economic retooling and savings and loan bailouts of the ’80s. The dot-com bubble hadn’t inflated, much less burst. “Irrational exuberance” and “mortgage-backed securities” were not yet part of our lingo.
So the guess here is that most of us who came of age during this time are unlikely to react to the convulsions of our financial system by recoiling from capitalism.
We saw enough good from business early enough in our lives not to mistake the basic profit motive for a kind of systemic greed. We are unlikely to view as a savior the government that contributed greatly to our financial meltdown with bad monetary policy, encouragement of lax lending standards and bad regulation — not deregulation, but poorly designed and enforced rules, and a mistaken confidence in them.
I have no evidence that these pro-capitalist attitudes will hold up, only a hunch. Or just a hope.
What truly worries me is the reaction of the generation that’s yet to come of age.
For them, business won’t be just the faceless entity that zapped Mom and Dad’s 401(k)s. The message they get from so many directions is that business is the exploiter of the sick and the polluter of our planet. So, not a good guy.
Add to this worldview the fact that their older siblings grew up with a sense of entitlement and often got what they’d expected. But there are fewer jobs, even summer jobs, for this group, and probably fewer “go out and conquer the world” speeches awaiting them at graduation.
The starting point for them, then, is far different than it was for those who went before. What will they conclude from it all?
It’s an open question, one that we can’t answer yet but ought to keep in mind as we talk about the recent past and set the course for our nation.
Admittedly, we are probably not on the verge of producing a group of 18-year-olds like the one in France a few years back that overwhelmingly told pollsters their ideal job was that of a civil servant.
At 18, a person ought to be at his most idealistic and ambitious, not wishing for a job that simply offers security and short working hours. Yet successive generations of anti-business rhetoric and high unemployment have taken their toll on the country that gave us the word “entrepreneur.” That’s a long-term prospect we don’t want to set in motion here.
The good news is that my old camp lives on, providing a few hundred Georgian kids each year a chance to see a different side of businesses and executives.
But let’s keep in mind that they — and the thousands of children who aren’t attending 21st Century Leaders — are also absorbing everything else we say and do about the world that lies ahead of them. And that what they hear and see will help determine how they think in the future.