Shaping Up

Can the "Strenuous Life" renew American competitiveness?

By Kenneth Baer

Tagged CultureInequality

It has been a century since Theodore Roosevelt sat in the White House, but the Rough Rider has managed to maintain a hold on the American imagination. Since 2000 alone, he has been the subject of 36 books. And this summer he graced the cover of a major American newsweekly, inside of which ran a dozen articles covering every facet of the 26th president–perhaps the only politician without a full-time press operation to get such treatment. While Time explained its flood-the-zone coverage by noting that TR was “the man who drew his flourishing nation into the future,” the articles themselves spoke more to nostalgia than Rooseveltian exuberance for the yet to come.

Not that most Americans spend much time arguing the virtues of the Pure Food and Drug Act or the establishment of the National Parks system, although both owe their existence to Roosevelt. But, in today’s age of poll-driven slogans, there is nevertheless a palpable yearning for the qualities of national leadership that Roosevelt embodied, in and out of the Oval Office. He dreamed big, and he acted on those dreams. He was erudite, an accomplished naturalist, and a prolific writer. He was comfortable in both the society circles to which he was born and in the company of the cowboys and soldiers he sought to join. Like all great presidents, it is through his biography that we read the story of America: a person whose life story intersects with the life of the country and someone with a vision for what the next chapters should read.

Roosevelt consciously led a life in keeping with how he saw American history. To him, the personal was political. Personal behavior and character–not of his opponents, but of his fellow Americans–was a pressing national concern. The “Strenuous Life,” for which TR is well-remembered embracing, was not just a personal creed but a political stance. As Roosevelt told the Hamilton Club of Chicago in his famous 1899 lecture of that name, “A healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk.” To TR, the health of the nation was intertwined with the health of its citizens: Physical and intellectual vigor went hand in hand, and a country could only compete on the world stage if its inhabitants had both.

So what would TR make of the United States today? According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, only three in 10 American adults get the recommended amount of weekly physical activity. American children spend, on average, four hours a day sitting in front of a computer or TV screen, while less than 10 percent of younger children have daily physical education in school. While TR sure enjoyed a good meal, he undoubtedly would be alarmed to behold a nation in which more than 108 million adults are overweight or obese and in which, since 1980, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled among kids between two and five and tripled among kids age six to 11. The strenuous life has been replaced with the sweetened life. Perhaps Time should have put TR’s 300-pound successor, William Howard Taft, on its cover.

There is even evidence that kids confronting poor nutrition and obesity suffer academically and behaviorally. As the National Association of State Boards of Education noted, “Health and success in school are interrelated. Schools cannot achieve their primary mission of education if students and staff are not healthy and fit physically, mentally, and socially.”It is impossible to gauge how much this contributes to America’s intellectual slippage, but the slippage is readily apparent. Only one out of every five high school students takes enough science and math to qualify for any kind of engineering or advanced science degree in college, and American 15-year-olds now rank 24th in the world in math scores. And while 30 years ago the United States ranked third in the number of young Americans who earned science degrees, it now ranks 17th. In the fields that will define the future, what seems to be lost is the national will to compete. Indeed, the New York Times reported this August that millions of American men between 30 and 55–men at the height of their productivity–are choosing not to work. Representing 13 percent of men this age, these people are relying on savings, credit cards, and home equity to finance a life of leisure. It’s hardly “the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife”that TR preached.

To be sure, for every 40-year-old who chooses to live on his Visa card and home-equity loan, there is one pulling a double shift or working weekends to get a new company off the ground or keep his family afloat. While American high-schoolers lag behind their peers overall, more go on to college than ever before, and they compete intensely to do so. And, it was not that long ago–not even a decade–that the United States appeared to be leaving its world competitors in the dust during the tech boom.Yet the overall trends are clear: Something has changed. Americans’ anxiety about their waistline and their anxiety about the country’s global competitiveness are both symptoms of a larger problem: the loss of the strenuous life.

What happened?

At one level, for many Americans, hard work is no longer paying off. From 2003 to 2004, the average incomes of the bottom 99 percent of households grew by less than 3 percent, after adjusting for inflation; the average household incomes of the top 1 percent jumped almost 17 percent. Pulling back further, from 1966 to 2001, median wage and salary income, adjusted for inflation, increased 11 percent; for those in the 99th percentile of wealth, it rose 121 percent, and for those in the 99.99th percentile, it rose 617 percent. In 1982, CEO pay was 42 times that of the non-management worker; in 2004, it was 431 times that of the non-management worker. In such a superstar economy, the payoffs are bigger, but fewer and farther between. For those unlucky or unable to win, life becomes more precarious. A sick child, an accident at work, or a parent requiring nursing home care, and an average family can be plunged into financial ruin. As a result, many families are hamstrung–risk-taking becomes too risky; anxiety replaces action.

And this is happening precisely when most Americans are expecting an easier life. This is the third generation to have grown up in postwar prosperity. But, as in a family, the first generation works hard to provide for the upward movement of the second, and the third grows up without any memory or experience of the hardships and deprivations that motivated their parents and grandparents. So, while the World War II generation was willing to work weekends to send their kids to college, and those baby-boom children were willing to tackle difficult, practical subjects (like engineering) in order to secure themselves within the middle class, their kids are able to follow their tastes and pleasures and take for granted the gains their elders worked so hard to achieve.

Roosevelt, in his own time, recognized that there would be those who did not have to work hard. But he argued that this “freedom from effort” created a new obligation “to carry on some kind of non-remunerative work in science, in letters, in art, in exploration, in historical research–work of the type we most need in this country.” On the contrary, he added, one who treated “this period of freedom from the need of actual labor as a period, not of preparation, but of mere enjoyment ” shows that he is simply a cumberer of the earth’s surface.”

To be clear, Roosevelt was talking about a potentially idle rich, and he was concerned that these fortunes–and, presumably, minds–would be not be put to good use. Today, the “freedom of effort” has been democratized. Easy credit enables an easy lifestyle–not only is credit card use in the United States more prevalent than in the entire rest of the world combined, but it also has helped push the country’s savings rate into negative territory. High-speed, ubiquitous Internet connections can deliver games, video, and audio entertainment wherever you are, whenever you want it. Our trade policies keep the price of consumer goods cheap and plentiful. And fast food–high in calories, low in nutritional value, inexpensive in price, and served in ever-larger portions–serves as a narcotic, both to please and to numb.

Combine the perception that hard work goes unrewarded with a culture in which instant gratification and leisure is both cheap and accessible, and the difficulties of leading the strenuous life become apparent. Yet the strenuous life is as important at the turn of the twenty-first century as it was at the turn of the twentieth. While the United States has enjoyed prosperity for generations, there are nations just beginning to taste it–and they want more, badly. Much has been written about the emergence of China and India as world competitors, and rightfully so. Less attention has been paid to the other advanced nations–from Ireland to Taiwan–who are actively and aggressively working to get their slice of the global economic pie. These countries are educating their citizens and working the long hours to win jobs that, a generation ago, were found in the United States and that cannot yet be done in China. And, while no nation comes close to America’s military might, there are movements and militias working around the globe constantly searching for creative ways to, at the very least, bloody our nose.

To reclaim the strenuous life, we need to do more than just idolize TR. It will take a national effort both to prepare Americans for global competition and to inspire them to action. The former can be accomplished through policy–from re-establishing the link between hard work and personal success to creating public schools that prepare young people for the jobs of tomorrow and steadying the dizzying instabilities of middle-class life. In an age of relative and expected affluence, American workers now need to be assured that a life of toil and effort will get them more than just additional toil and effort.

But policy alone is not the solution (just as society alone is not the problem), a reality that TR knew well. We also need national leadership unafraid to use the bully pulpit to revive the ethic of hard work, ambition, and sacrifice. Tackling demanding subjects (whether Chinese or computer science) or taking on difficult jobs (whether leading a battalion or an inner-city classroom) should not only be encouraged in policy, but also praised throughout society. Hard work–physical and mental–must be ennobled.

An America where the rungs of upward mobility are repaired and in which hard work is embraced and rewarded will begin to be a country that ceases to be out of shape–literally and figuratively. National vigor and physical vigor are two sides of the same coin, and an increase in both is critical to American competitiveness. When restored, perhaps then TR rightfully will deserve another shot at a magazine cover.

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Kenneth Baer is the co-editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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