Character Test

Terrorism, recession, bankruptcy, scandal. Is this a great country or what?

When this country is shaken by economic tremors and the specter of war, how do Americans react? For a glimpse of the national soul, look at the results from this Roper Poll, conducted after the stock-market collapse but before the downturn had run its course.

  • Even in a tumultuous talent market, 61% of the poll's respondents said that they preferred "a job that pays a high wage, but with a 50-50 chance of getting promoted or fired'' to a "steady job earning just enough to get by on, but with no prospect for advancement.''
  • Despite legions of new companies having gone belly-up, more than half of the respondents said that they still wanted to become entrepreneurs. And of those already on their own, 91% preferred self-employment to working for others.
  • Overall, 71% said that they're better prepared to succeed than their parents were. And 60% said that their children's opportunities to succeed would be better still.

The pollsters detected an appetite for risk, a thirst for innovation, and a "sweeping confidence that for the individual the present is better than the past, [and] that the future will be better than the present.''

Surprised? Good! This Roper Poll was conducted for Fortune magazine . . . in 1940.

1940. Just a few years earlier, the Great Depression was raging. The worst times had passed, but the unemployment rate that year was - you think we have it rough? - 14.6%. Hitler had invaded Poland. Europe was at war. And the United States was on the brink of entering that monumental conflict.

Yet, according to Roper's measure and many others, most Americans were unfazed. Why? Because even then, Americans had divined a secret about our social and — economic lives: The future is almost always better than the past.

This principle applies with equal force and special poignancy as we near the one-year anniversary of September 11. In the aftermath of last year's horror, the country's pundits told us — in a single voice that mouthed identical words — that "everything has changed,'' that "nothing will ever be the same.'' The land of the free would rapidly become the island of the paranoid. The paper economy would enter the shredder of uncertainty.

Well, that's not how it turned out. To be sure, the images of that horrible day remain seared in our memories. And for families that lost loved ones, the pain will never fully subside. But what's most remarkable is how little those solemn declarations of doom reflect the reality of life today. We're not wearing gas masks. Airplanes are still flying. Families are still taking vacations. Meanwhile, the economy hasn't cratered. We're not all going to become each other's millionaire next door, of course (and a whole passel of CEOs are going to go to jail). But productivity has climbed. Consumer confidence remains robust. Entrepreneurs are starting new companies. Innovation is still the name of the game. And most Americans still believe that it's better to take a smart risk with their careers, to venture with a startup, or to act as the internal spark in their company or on their team than to batten down the hatches and just play it safe.

The lesson in all this isn't that pundits are idiots or that the American spirit is indomitable (although both propositions do approximate eternal truth). The lesson is that the sweeping confidence of six decades ago — and the self-reliance and entrepreneurial zeal it produced — is still justified today.

The arrow of history still points toward progress. Over time, opportunities expand, innovation goes on, and choices proliferate. This doesn't happen in one smooth line, free of hiccups, dips, or backsliding along the way. But the trajectory is unmistakable. As anyone in 1940 could have told us, things keep getting better.

Daniel H. Pink blogs regularly on Just One Thing (www.justone thing.blogspot.com).

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