Another chicken vs. egg puzzle…

Someone is bound to make fun of me for this, in one of those, “oh my god, are you really so dense that you just heard about this,” or “um, dude, that’s like so forty years ago,” sort of moments that I really don’t enjoy. But since I am sort of thick and dense, when you really get down to it, I’m going to ponder this publicly anyway.

I had an interesting conversation with someone, a futurist by trade, (I’m still wondering how to get in on that particular racket – it just has to be the coolest job title ever – “So, what do you do for a living?” “Me, oh nothing special, I examine the past, measure trends and attempt to predict the future.”) and we got to talking about the fuzzy and strange world of motivations. I do believe, very strongly, that in order to understand why someone does what he or she does on a daily basis that you’ve got to know their motivators. In my line of work that means trying to figure out what’s driving someone to harass my employees or why when my folks are doing their damnedest to make someone happy they continue to be miserable. In the midst of this conversation about motivations my colleague started to talk to me about Maslow’s theory of motivational hierarchy. Here’s a crude diagram…

You actually read this pyramid from the bottom up. Abraham Maslow suggested that human beings are motivated in a hierarchical order, starting with basic physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep and so on. Once those needs are met we move up the pyramid to the next level, the need for safety – protection from the elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc. Once those needs are met we’re then looking for love – belongingness in our work group, our family, affection from those around us, relationships and whatnot. Once that’s all taken care of we’re all about esteem – self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, responsibility, etc. And should we manage to climb that high we then strive for self-actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, personal growth and peak experiences. Anyway, that’s the rough cut university psych-101 quickie explanation.

Now how we got into this with regard to work is that my colleague suggests that economics have a hell of a lot to do with where most people fall on this scale of motivations. Her example was that during the dot com bubble lots of folks who’d ordinarily be floating around between tiers two and three (safety and love) were cruising around in the rarefied air of level four (esteem) and were flirting with the top of the pile at level five (self-actualization). Your average middle manager at a dot com during the peak of that economic monster we now call the bubble was flush with more cash than they’d ever known, thus having little to worry about in the area of basic physiological needs. Crime was in a nosedive and confidence in government was at an all-time high (as far as we were concerned, Bill Clinton could eat the flesh of kittens for lunch every day so long as he kept steering the economy the way he had been – the dude had a blank check – which probably explains why folks in the GOP hated him so much), so no one was giving much thought to safety. The touchy-feely world of work in the dot com era was all about hoodwinking us into thinking we were irreplaceable and that each of us were the greatest resource our respective companies had (yeah, right, and I’ve got some land in Florida I’d like to sell you too), not to mention the fact that we were all jacked in to the net (still are – just look at where you’re reading this) and were all sure that we had piles of dear friends scattered all over the globe who we could turn to in a nanoclick just by switching on our computers, so love and belonging were pretty much covered too.

Yup, in the world of the internet economic revolution we were looking at a world where we might just be able to concentrate our work on getting up to those high peaks of esteem and self-actualization. Just look at the boom in memberships at yoga and Zen centers all over America. Not to mention the resurgence of interest in philosophy in general (too bad so many folks steered so far clear of a little thing called ethics, but I digress). Then the bubble burst. The economy took a header right into the crapper. Suddenly people who were mostly busy trying to figure which Lama to follow were back to worrying about shelter, food and clothing. My colleague in Michigan suggests that we are only, just now, beginning to see the majority of people in our society climb back to the third rung of Maslow’s hierarchy – love – due to a slow economic recovery.

And that’s what got me thinking. While I know firsthand about the popping of the dot com bubble (I was laid off from two jobs within 12 months in 2000/2001) and cannot deny the reality of that economic bust, I don’t think the faltering of what were essentially marginal businesses to begin with precipitated the change in motivations. I’m suggesting that our motivations drove the change in the economy that resulted in the very real and very obvious recession that we do seem to be coming out of now.

I tend to look at things in a sort of macro historical context. And as my colleague and I were talking about Maslow’s hierarchy and drawing little timelines to describe what had happened with motivations in the U.S. in the past 15 years or so it dawned on me that there was a significant global event that occurred in 1991 and another that occurred in 2001 that might frame the changes we were discussing pretty tidily.

In 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the Cold War that had existed between the USA and USSR came to a screeching halt. Overnight, life changed. For nearly fifty years Americans had been certain that our lives stood on a knife edge and that we were one diplomatic gaffe away from nuclear annihilation. Suddenly we had nothing to fear, or so we thought. Most people assumed that with the Cold War over we could shrink down our military, mothball our missile fleet and, as folks said often at the time, turn our swords into plowshares.

Personally, I spent most of my adolescence and early adult life pretty well convinced that I’d never live to see middle age. Most folks I grew up with felt the same. We’d grudgingly climbed up Maslow’s scale to stand at level two – safety – because you figured out by the time you were 15 or 16 that since you had no way to influence whether or not the politicians did or said something stupid that even if it was inevitable that they’d blow it and blow us all up along the way, you couldn’t stop it or do anything about it, so you might as well move on. But you weren’t going to convince any of us to go much further. What would be the point?

So, come 1992 and there’s no more Cold War, no more USSR and we even booted George Bush out of the White House. The economic boom we felt from 1994 until 2001 very well could have been a response to a lack of fear. It could be that folks of an entrepreneurial bent were willing to take bigger risks, to try things that they might have hesitated to try with the spectre of nuclear doom hanging over their heads. And at the back end of that boom, when it all went to pieces in in 2001, are the attacks that occurred on September 11th of that year. Could it be that where we’re at now is analogous to where the U.S. was a few years after the Cuban missile Crisis? (Sure, the Cold War had actually been going on since 1949 when the USSR did their first nuclear tests, but there was no sense of real danger in the air in the U.S. until the Cuban missile Crisis brought the two countries to the literal brink in 1962.) That crisis produced real fear in America and real fear in the rest of the world as well. It also produced economic troubles not so different from those we’ve experienced here in the past three years.

I’m not completely sold on this idea yet, but I’m pretty close. It’s a chicken vs. egg argument, hence the title of this post. Did the shaky economy cause most of us to tumble down the Maslow scale into the lower reaches, concerned with basic needs for food, shelter, safety and security, or did our fear of terrorism cause our motivations to shift lower in the Maslow scale and our concentration on basic needs change our behavior in ways that caused the economy to slide after us? If the latter is the case, then what comes next? Are we in for a prolonged, generational economic skid, like the one that started in the mid 1960s and only poked up tentatively in the mid 1980s and only fully dissipated once the Cold War ended in 1991? Could it be that so long as the U.S. is a target of international terrorists our fears and unease about the world will keep the economy in a funk?

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