At the end of my last post, I wondered why people tend to believe that institutions are just there. Beemer’s answer was that “Maybe because for the first 18 years of our lives, they are? Childhood is dominated by relationships that are dictated and maintained by external systems, mostly â€œfamilyâ€ and â€œschoolâ€.”
This makes a lot of sense to me. As children, we have to go to school, we have to do our chores, we have to spend time with our family. We have no choices, and therefore no sense of how institutions such as homes or families are created. We are taught to accept the world as it is.
As we transition into adulthood, we have to make choices, and learn to take responsibility for those choices. We learn that things are not black and white, that sometimes these solid eternal institutions that we believe in sometimes conflict with each other (e.g. company vs. family responsibilities). We have multiple identities which each create their own demands. It is no longer a simple world of Platonic ideals, but an ever-changing world of shifting allegiances.
Beemer’s answer also reminded me of a generational shift. In my parents’ generation, institutions were forever. IBM, GM, AT&T – these were companies that would last til the end of time. You got a job, and you stuck with it, eventually retiring with that company. People got married, and stayed married. There were the good guys (America), and the bad guys (the Commies), and that was that. People knew where they stood.
In contrast, my generation has witnessed a lot of upheaval. The Soviet Union broke apart. New countries spring into existence on a yearly basis. Many of my friends have divorced parents, and family structures so complicated they need three sheets of paper to illustrate them. Once-eternal companies have disappeared or are dying. The world is in flux. Institutions are unreliable.
Computers, and especially games, may also play into this generational shift in attitude. My generation was among the first to really have games around our entire lives. What does that have to do with anything? Unlike children of previous generations, who were presented with unyielding eternal institutions like school and family and even Little League, games gave my generation a chance to create our own worlds, our own institutions. Life was just another realm in which we could play with the rules.
I wonder whether this sort of game playing and this sort of experimentation with institutions from an early age is what contributed to the massive rise of entrepreneurship we have seen over the past decade or so. Instead of being locked into a world where institutions were king and where the goal was to be a company man, my generation realized that institutions could be brought into being, that starting a new company was like starting a new game. (Okay, the massive drop in capital costs to start a company also contributed, but I’m trying to make a point here).
I was trying to think of ways in which to justify this hypothesis. One thing I came up with was to correlate the types of activities that people participated in as kids with their level of entrepreneurship. Those of us who led more structured childhoods (organized team sports, school activities, etc.) tend to be more rule-followers, more likely to seek out an institution to join rather than creating our own path (I obviously include myself in this group). Those who had less structure in childhood, who were skateboarding in the park with their friends, who played role-playing games and constructed universes that way, they’re the ones who are starting their own companies, creating their own fields of study, etc. These are broad categorizations, and I’m overgeneralizing wildly, but I think there might be an interesting viewpoint hidden somewhere in here.
As an aside, I just typed “there might be a kernel of truth” a second ago, but that just made me uncomfortable because I’m not sure I believe in truth any more, only more and less useful, so I changed it. I’m becoming such a relativist it’s not even funny.
So what can we learn from this? Is this a useful viewpoint? I think the idea of understanding the precariousness of all social institutions as talked about in Reassembling the Social contributes directly to a sense of entrepreneurship. If social institutions are continually re-created by people tracing their existence, then they can be created in the same way. I wonder how we could instill such values in children – our industrial age system of education is clearly not the right answer. Heck, I’d like to learn how to instill such values in myself; I still tend to be way too deferential to authority, and to latch on to social institutions, rather than finding my own path. I think I’m moving in that direction, though. More walk, less talk, is needed.