America's growing affinity for risk

Silicon Valley is a somnolent landscape of low-rise office parks, suburban neighborhoods, near-perfect weather, and earth-toned architecture.

Yet what emanates from here are not only revolutionary products, but also a revolutionary spirit that seems to have taken America's longstanding love/hate relationship with the notion of risk and made it an object of unabashed reverence and respectability.

High-flying risk, it could be said at this millennial moment, is now part of America's accepted success formula, something to be taught and emulated, not just secretly admired out of the corner of the culture's eye.

"We're seeing a resurgence of risk both as a necessity of economic success and as a mark of what is fashionable," says Jackson Lears, a cultural historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "What's really happening is risk is now cool."

Mr. Lears points to everything from the explosion of the self-help therapy industry with its emphasis on personal "breakthroughs" to extreme sports and gambling as evidence that reverence for taking risks is supplanting society's older preference for control and gradualism.

Indeed, "take a chance" may be one of the 1990s most significant gifts to the early 2000s. Time magazine's recent Man of the Year award winner, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, captures the spirit of the moment perfectly, say historians. Amazon, and the baby dotcoms that have followed, thrive on a recipe that would have been suspect a decade ago. These Internet start-ups build nothing tangible, borrow gobs of money, and spend it generously for years before anyone expects a profit.

Wall Street's winning streak

Yet the stock market and its growing legion of middle-class investors couldn't be more enthusiastic. The technology-laden NASDAQ market has crashed through one record after another this year - with no end in sight. It's all about betting on growth, which may be perfectly rational but is also risky. "What we see is that people don't give enough weight to how imperfect their vision of the future is," says Meir Statman, a finance professor at Santa Clara University in California.

Nonetheless, with more and more common folks automatically pumping retirement dollars into the stock market, which helps feed its seemingly perpetual climb, acceptance of the market's financial risk is no longer confined to the investor elite. Risk tolerance has become widespread.

It's all part of a changing economic and business ethos, say analysts. "You can take a knife and slice the business community right down the middle," says Randy Jayne, a senior partner with the world's largest executive search firm, Heidrick & Struggles. "There are those in traditional industry that would never think of taking certain kinds of risks. And there are those that will and they're now being rewarded openly, really for the first time."

Sit in on any management seminar for today's fast-moving industries, like technology and telecommunications, and you'll hear a message that exhorts the value of risk and even failure. "If you failed in the past, you were practically blacklisted," says Mr. Jayne. Today, though, the right type of failure can be a sure sign of a go-getter and someone willing to "think outside the box."

Accepting risk and taking chances has always been part of the American experience. Indeed, it was risk takers who landed at Plymouth Rock, the adventurous who moved West, and the restless from other countries who have made the US a nation of immigrants.

Yet Lears says America's maverick streak has always met its match in the Protestant ethic of work, sacrifice, and discipline. From the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th century, labor, business, and government all sought in their own ways to control and tame many of the risks inherent in the country's freewheeling economy. That attempt to control or soften the level of chance or consequences associated with an unfettered market economy, says Lears, began breaking up in the late 1960s when social movements for greater freedoms were followed by political shifts favoring less government.

Risk and willingness to take chances are revered not only in the emerging "new" economy, but throughout society. While teens pirouetting on roller skateboards may be a normal adolescent statement of invincibility, only in this era has such activity drawn the sponsorship of a major corporate power such as the ESPN sports channel, backer of the annual "X Games."

And of course one of the industries that has come the farthest the fastest is gambling. Las Vegas is now a family town, and the number of states embracing lotteries has grown exponentially in recent years.

Risk finds greater acceptance

Is that a byproduct of society's growing romanticization of taking risks, living on the edge, and leaping before looking? Analysts say the causes of gambling's surge are various, but the line separating those sitting down at a blackjack table and those entering a computer cubicle to earn a living as a stock day-trader is blurring. Lears also sees the growth and orientation of the therapy industry as a sign of greater cultural acceptance of risk.

Elevating the virtues of risk can certainly bring collateral damage. The gambling phenomenon costs the US $5 billion annually in lost productivity, social services, and creditor losses, according to the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center.

Just how long Americans' love of risk lasts is anyone's guess. But analysts say there is little doubt it has the upper hand and has yet to encounter the kinds of setbacks or corrections that could make older values, like caution, popular again.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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