Optimism in Anxious Times

THE $7 million salaries we read about for professional athletes and TV news and entertainment personalities may make sense as business investments. But for most of us they sound like yardage calculations to the moon. They are signs of times out of whack.

The pace of change is accelerating as the 20th century nears its end. The falling away of communism has led to a decline in defense spending, in the hiring of scientists and engineers, in the status of science and technology on the campus, and in the career outlook of yet another white-collar sector. In most disciplines, colleges and universities are paring back tenure and adding to work loads. The American health-care reform movement, in part, is designed to increase the portability of benefits, as workers have to bridge shorter-term jobs. The expansion of mutual funds and other investments are yet another way citizens are trying to anticipate a future calling for greater self-reliance.

It may be of little comfort to observe that America has undergone restructurings of similar magnitude. The shift from farm to factory and to suburban service jobs after World War II was one such dislocation. It may help little more to note that the US economy is again the world's most favored.

An optimistic outlook does have advantages. This is true for nations, leaders, and individuals. Martin Seligman, in his popular book ``Learned Optimism,'' tells how the presidential candidate with the most frequent upbeat references in his speeches - Bill Clinton in the latest election - usually wins. The bias toward optimism favors the selection of executives who think a job can be done. This only makes sense.

Interestingly, Seligman balances his argument by pointing out that pessimists have their place too, and there tend to be more of them than optimists: The human race has needed a tilt toward those who anticipate that winters can be tough, or that the prospect of droughts requires advance planning.

Planning for the security of a whole people, or for the continuance of an institution that should go on for many generations, requires a special kind of optimism. Corporations come and go, are absorbed, split off, recombined; or they generate entirely new kinds of products. A country like Taiwan, a mere moon to mainland China's Earth, needs a survival mentality even as it entertains the unruly initial steps of democracy. An Israel's politics shows the tension between the sensibleness of regional economic progress and the possibility of further bloodshed.

Learned optimism builds on certain axioms: the need for logic to restrain enthusiasm, and the need to take advantage of long-term secular forces (such as the inevitable impact in the workplace of educational parity for women, the likelihood that the computer's eviction of workers will create new pools of consumers to be served).

The Soviet empire's demise, the undoing of apartheid in South Africa, the creation of a North American free-trade zone are causes for optimism. We do not know what China will do after Deng or how the tragedy in the former Yugoslavia will play out.

Shortened time horizons for work and relationships create anxiety as the third millennium approaches. The leaders in demand will be those who see the need to invest in education, in more equal opportunity, a cleaner environment - lasting values toward which to steer in uncertain times.

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