Since 1966 UCLA has been conducting a survey called “The American Freshman” which has surveyed incoming college students on a range of factors.

A review of the first 30 years of the data in 1996 highlighted a fascinating shift in values.

Especially notable are changes in two contrasting value statements: The importance of “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” and of “being very well off financially” In the late 1960s developing a meaningful philosophy of life was the top value, being endorsed as an “essential” or “very important” goal by more than 80 percent of the entering freshmen. Being very well off financially, on the other hand, lagged far behind in the late 1960s, ranking fifth or sixth on the list with less than 45 percent of the freshmen endorsing it as a very important or essential goal in life. Since that time these two values have basically traded places, with being very well off financially now the top value (at 73.6 percent endorsement) and developing a meaningful philosophy of life now occupying sixth place at only 43.1 percent endorsement

You can see a visual representation of this swap in the following graph.

While “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” seemed to drop steadily from survey launch, the goal of being well off financially didn’t seem to take off until the early 1970s.

The other interested thing from this long-term data is how consistent the other values have been. I looked at the top 4 values from 1970 – 2015 and found that despite the two above mentioned values changing place, the other three values remained remarkably consistent.

Those three things?

  1. Raising a family
  2. Helping others who are in difficulty
  3. Becoming an authority in my field

Essentially, take care of the people in your life, try to help others and be good at what you do.

These seem like a good recipe for like and aligns with the wisdom and research on what leads to a meaningful life.

But still, why did college students become so obsessed with money and why has it remained so central?

Could it be due to how school has become about test scores and grades?

A Harvard study from 2014 highlighted the gap between what parents claim to care about and what children thought their parents cared about.

According to a 2012 study, 96% of parents surveyed viewed developing moral character in children as “very important, if not essential” and highly valued their children “being honest, loving, and reliable”(Bowman et al., 2012). Research suggests that most parents across race/ethnic groups value caring or “benevolence” more than achievement and are far more likely to value “benevolence” over “power” (Suizzo, 2007).

When you ask parents what they care about they say that they want their kinds to be kind people with integrity.

But what happens when you ask their kids? Here is the results of a survey of 10,000 students asked to rank what their parents value:

Hmmm. Who you going to trust, the parents or the kids?

I was lucky not to have parents that cared a lot about grades but it was still clear that getting good grades was the best thing you could do in school. If you were not getting good grades, parents often were quite concerned about that person’s future. The social pressure to achieve was clear at an early age.

Its easy to see children raised into this environment looking for the next metric they can optimize for after college. There may not be any grades in life but your compensation is is the next best thing.

But What Does Society Want?

Almost everyone seems to have an opinion of what “society” wants and this seem to be very different about what people report about what they really want.

Partly because of my own experiences earning less money and partly because of a fascinating survey from Gallup called the Success Index. In their survey they ask people two questions:

  1. How do you personally define success?
  2. How do you think others define success?

Take a look at the main section of this on status:

Almost everyone thinks success is about being good at something you care about while at they same time they think that almost everybody else only cares about being rich and famous.

How can this be?

Either most people are lying about how they define success or people have a terrible understanding of the motives of other people.

My guess would be that it is a bit of both. It’s very easy to delude ourselves into thinking we are doing things for the right reasons while assuming that others are in it for the wrong reasons.

What I think this survey tells us is that even if people do have good motivations for doing whatever they are doing, they feel that they will be judged by a different societal standard.

A different section of the survey shows this in an even more dramatic way. It asked people to rank 76 different elements that are part of their personal definition of success. Similar to the survey with college freshman we see that having a family is an important part of people’s lives.

However, when you ask the same people about their perception of broad societal definitions of success we see the lowest ranked value from above jump all the way to #1 and to a dramatic degree.

It seems that most people assume there is a broad societal benchmark of “success” that mostly has to do with how much money, status and fame one has. Despite this, most people also seem to proclaim very different definitions of success.

What does this all mean?

Could it be that people still care about what it means to live a philosophically meaningful life and that they are too ashamed to share that?

Or have money and fame overtaken everything else as the de facto aim of life for most people?

It’s worth looking back at the start of the original data set. Who were the people answering the survey in 1966?

William Whyte’s book titled “The Organization Man,” which detailed the new trend of young people moving to suburbs and large corporations, gives us a glimpse into the mindset of a college student in that time.

While they talk little about money, they talk a great deal about the good life. This life is, first of all, calm and ordered. Many a senior confesses that he’s thought of a career in teaching, but as he talks it appears that it is not so much that he likes teaching itself as the sort of life he associates with it—there is a touch of elms and quiet streets in the picture. For the good life is equable; it is a nice place out in the suburbs, a wife and three children, one, maybe two cars (you know, a little knock-about for the wife to run down to the station in), and a summer place up at the lake or out on the Cape, and, later, a good college education for the children. It is not, seniors explain, the money that counts.

William Whyte, The Organization Man

In the book he shares how it was genuinely shocking how little risk young people wanted to take compared to previous generations. They saw the chaos of the war and did not want to repeat those days. With this backdrop it might make sense that developing a meaningful philosophy of life might become a central goal of one’s life.

Over time, however, young people started to care more about money until it became the most important metric in their life. This was furthered by the common knowledge that everyone knew that everyone else thought getting rich was the prime aim of life.

Revisiting the American Freshman data, the #1 goal of students was has remained “being very well off financially” for almost 50 years and throughout that time has only become more important. In 2019 it reached one of the highest levels on record with 84% of students said that being well off financially was essential or very important.

Despite this, all of these surveys share some very consistent themes over the past 55+ years. People still see having a family, being helpful to others and being good at what you do as things that are centrally important to a life well lived.

It doesn’t appear that money is losing its grip on our imagination but it might be a relief to consider the fact that many people only conform to these goals because they think everyone else thinks this way.

I for one don’t have wealth as my #1 metric of success and I officially give you permission to abandon that as a central aim of your life as well.



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