New companies now only make up 7% of the American economy. It was 13% in the 1980s. Business dynamism has been steadily declining for decades. Americans, and probably much of the Western world, are becoming less dynamic, less adventurous, and more complacent. It’s as if everything is slowing down and we are coming to a stop.
Economist Tyler Cowen’s book “The Complacent Class”, has sobering data that shows just how bad it is. Cowen isn’t even sure this problem can be reversed without some kind of drastic, destructive event. Maybe the Donald Trump and Brexit shocks will be enough. Whatever happens, we as individuals need to recognize we have a problem too. Most of us are too complacent in life.
We need to be restless.
How Complacent Are We?
Complacency doesn’t mean happiness. It means satisfaction with the status quo. We live in an age where most of us have services once only available to royalty. Thanks to modern technology we can have almost all our needs cared for without ever stepping outside. That’s a level of passivity and complacency unheard of in all human history save for some of the wealthiest, most out-of-touch and despised kings, queens, and emperors. We all have servants tending to us and we are slowly growing dependant, weak, and oblivious to the world. Servants used to be people. Now they are digital services and products.
American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit is declining. Americans are now less likely to switch jobs or move to a new community. Interstate migration is down 51% from the 1948 to 1971 average, and it’s been continuing to fall since the 1980s. Job reallocation rates have fallen more than a quarter since 1990. The stories of Americans venturing West — or anywhere — to build their fortune are vanishing.
Despite all the attention it receives, the tech industry isn’t a bright spot for startup creation. The number of new firms as a percent in that sector has been declining since the 1980s. Even millennials, which I am, are not the great entrepreneurial generation we thought we were. We’re starting companies at the lowest rate in 25 years. We’re not as adventurous as we thought, and the United States as a whole has been losing its spirit of adventure since the 1970s. It’s no wonder America stopped going to the moon and beyond in 1972.
Cowen offers a quote from Anthropologist David Graeber about one way we have stagnated technologically. Graeber made a comment about the special effects in the new Star Wars movies:
Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, ‘Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.’
It’s not just jobs, economics, or the technologies we develop where we are complacent. In 1970 only 15% of families lived in communities categorized as “affluent” or “poor”. By 2007 it was up to 31%. The wealthy among us are choosing to live complacent lives in communities where their neighbors have similar incomes. The poorer among us have no choice but to live in communities where their neighbors have similar incomes.
Political partisanship also has clear economic, educational, and racial divides. So Americans are increasingly living with people who are more likely to be the same race, earn the same income, and have the same political beliefs. This segregation is then reflected at the highest offices. Congressional gridlock is the rule, not the exception.
The demands for a complacent life manifest in physical ways too. The continuing rise in the number of gated communities illustrates the strong demand — especially among the wealthy — to live the most complacent, risk-free lives they can. Think of NIMBYism. Urban developments, often necessary, are slowed or halted.
Like foolish kings at court, we often hear from and spend time only with people that we want to hear from. Think of your own friends — real and on social media. There’s a good chance most of their political beliefs are similar to yours. This isn’t a new idea. Barack Obama spoke about these bubbles in his farewell address to the nation.
It’s not just the people we spend time with, media we consume, places we live, or businesses we start. Statistically speaking, if you abuse legal drugs or take illegal ones there is a good chance they’re either marijuana or opioids — calming drugs that promote passivity. Those are the drugs of choice in North America today. That’s a far cry from the cocaine fueled 80s frenzy or the LSD visions of the 60s.
None of this is what you would expect to see in a dynamic, adventurous society.
Complacency is insidious. We have a deep desire for a life where we can be passive and live like royalty, but the costs of that complacency can ultimately destroy the things that allowed us to become complacent in the first place. It kills entrepreneurial spirits. It increases wealth inequality. It increases racial and political segregation, and when all these problems begin to add up it can suddenly, and unexpectedly cause it all to come crashing down. Hello Donald Trump, Brexit, and whatever comes next.
Here’s the problem: It’s going to be uncomfortable. Being restless, taking risks, and demanding more from life is uncomfortable. There’s a good chance your ancestors were more restless and tried to do more with their lives than you. I don’t mean that as an insult or saying you aren’t working hard, but we need to realize, as individuals, that we may have a problem.
Some of us, ironically, may have to do something safe and unadventurous to get started — preparing. Chances are if you aren’t restless now it’s for a reason. Whether you are happy or unhappy with your life the point is you are complacent enough that you have not decided or found the energy to make any big changes.
Making changes and facing the adventurous unknown is stressful. So, reduce the stresses associated with change. If you can feel good about yourself physically and financially you’ll have an easier time feeling good about facing the unknown emotionally too.
Stay or get fit. Physical health will keep you ready for anything, improve your mood, and get you used to the idea of self-improvement.
If you can, create an emergency financial fund. Knowing that you have a financial cushion will make the idea of jumping at new opportunities less stressful.
Keep a notebook on you — digital or physical — for ideas that pop into your head during the day. Recording ideas you have is how new projects and companies get started. More importantly, knowing you have that notebook will make you think about new ideas throughout the day.
Read more. Reading opens you to new ideas. You’ll learn what is possible that you may not have thought of before. You’ll learn about problems and solutions that may never have occurred to you. It’s hard to be complacent when you know how the world works because it will make you think. That’s where ideas come from.
There is a technology that dominates the information and entertainment we consume. Algorithms figure out what kind of person you are and what media you like, then they offer it to you on a platter. It isn’t just what you like to watch, listen to, or read, but what you won’t need convincing to watch, listen to, or read. Those algorithms are probably right. Some of the best minds in the world and millions of dollars have developed those tools, and they’re getting better.
They provide us with recommended music on streaming sites, shows on Netflix, people to follow on Twitter, and online ads targeted to your interests that follow you to whatever website you go. Amazon wants to predict what you are going to buy before you’ve placed an order. Then there’s romance and dating. Online dating is literally a matchmaking service. Those sites are designed to match two people who are perfectly compatible.
These aren’t bad things. They are tools we can use, but they come with costs. When you rely too much on matchmaking you are complacently allowing algorithms to serve everything to you. You aren’t going out of your way to find out if there’s something more. How adventurous are you being when an algorithm can so perfectly match you to something or someone that you don’t even have to “give it a shot”? I don’t listen to rap. The streaming sites I use know this. That means I’m ignoring an entire genre of incredible music because I’m complacent with what I have. That’s bad.
Make a conscious effort to find different media. Take the risk that you may not like it. Keep an open mind. The dating world might be hard. You may have to rely on the old-fashioned way to meet people. It’s harder to spend time with someone different from you when you aren’t the only one making the decision. You have to hope the other person is willing to try the same thing. It’s easy to just say no over the smallest of differences when you can to go back to a matchmaking site and find someone else in a few minutes from the comfort of home.
Since the 2016 election many Americans have become restless and politically active in ways they never were before. That’s good, and if you’ve started, then good for you. If you haven’t, or, like me, you’re not American, then become politically engaged. Complacency about society and our political systems has been causing problems in the highest echelons of power for decades, and it reinforces complacency at all levels of society. Think of NIMBYism. When nothing new in your community gets built it reinforces the feeling that things won’t change.
Don’t let others speak for you. Get involved. Complacent people don’t ask or demand enough. They also tend not to pay attention to what is happening outside their community, or with people who may not be like themselves. Politicians won’t pay attention to you either if you aren’t involved. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Consider a side hustle. You’ll have the benefits of complacency while being restless. You don’t have to quit your day job, you can build a second career for yourself in case something happens to your day job, and you are being an adventurous entrepreneur at the same time.
Watching Netflix, playing video games, and browsing cute animal photos in your spare time might feel good and help you recharge. You need rest if you want to succeed anyway. The problem is every minute spent doing that is a signal of your complacency. In that minute you didn’t feel the need to put in the work to learn how to program, write that article, design that game, or start that new business. That’s complacency, and it means for that minute you were not restless enough to do something.
A complacent person or society is stagnant, slow, and vulnerable. Recognize the problem in your own life, and take steps to change it. Look for signs of this problem in the world around you. Be restless and demand more. Think like the Americans who headed West to build their fortune many years ago: get moving.
Note: Information and data for this post comes from Tyler Cowen’s book “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream” unless otherwise noted.