Monday, November 30, 2015

Losing the Value of Consequences

That behavior has consequences is a good thing.  It keeps us from burning ourselves over and over on hot stoves.  We can also anticipate consequences without actually experiencing them, keeping us from stepping off the sidewalk into the path of speeding traffic.  Good consequences come from living wisely and prudently, but these outcomes may be years away so their power over our decisions has less force.

I was reminded of this when I read about Bankrate's national poll finding: “More than a third of adults say they have not started saving for retirement yet” and “more than a quarter of the respondents age 50 to 64 have yet to start saving for retirement.”  "Many of those that are saving aren't saving all that much.”

Some reasons given for this include procrastination, living paycheck to paycheck, and lack of a savings plan at work.  But I think there is another reason.  The consequences are not seen as real.  When people, especially retirees, fall on hard times our compassionate society looks, often to the government, for ways to bail them out.  It’s seen as caring (and it is); but what message does it send to those in their pre-retirement years?  They are justified in thinking, that maybe saving is just not quite as important as some other current wants or needs.  This message then cascades to the younger generations who are not learning these saving habits from the example of their parents, nor do they believe they should be the chumps who save now instead of spending that money now on extra items like everyone else.

The article concludes with this advice from experts:  “Even if you think you can't afford saving for retirement now, consider making small lifestyle changes and sacrifices to set some money aside for the future” looking at your own situation instead comparing to others.

A good example of small sacrifices showed up in this USA Today article on the same day as the publication of that savings poll.  “On average, Americans spend about $20 per week getting lunch in restaurants, or $1,043 a year, according to a survey…of 2,033 people by Visa.”  It also notes that students are the highest group at $27.47 per week and even the unemployed spend over $15 per week.  There are many other examples of small sacrifices, but the incentive is low.

While we believe we are doing others favors, showing love and compassion by shielding them from the consequences of their own choices, this behavior has long-term deleterious effects on society.  The concept of tough love, where we force people to accept some level of responsibility, seems to have been lost.  It leads to outrageous situations like the one in Texas about two years ago, where a young man’s excuse for his criminal behavior was “affluenza” or what used to be referred to as “spoiled rotten.”  This was a single rare case but similar attitudes can and do spread through society when so-called “compassion” replaces true caring, and people are shielded not only from the consequence of their actions, but even reminding them that they have in fact made poor choices is seen as hateful or blaming the victim.

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