We are in the age of personal responsibility

When I moved to the farmhouse, I first replaced myself with a new CEO for my company, and then started reading enough about interior design to get a degree in the subject, if I believed in graduate degrees. I became enthralled with Steampunk as a way to blend the rustic nature of my surroundings with my fascination with putting objects with an old purpose into homes for a new purpose.

Steampunk is the updated yet still-dated look of the Industrial Age. A recent Harvard Business Reivew has a timeline of business. I was surprised to remember that the Industrial Age was actually during the aftermath of the Civil War. The timeline also shows the Space Age, which, by the way, Restoration Hardware has interpreted in a genius way so as to be able to sell to interior design mavens with a fetish for mid-century modern.

Looking through the timeline, you start to notice that so often in history there is little awareness of the prevailing movement of the time. At the time of the Space Age, people were not aware that it was actually the Woodstock Age, when Baby Boomers began ramming their narcissistic view of self-actualization down American throats, as their Greatest Generation parents slipped in one last good deed, the Civil Rights Movement. (Here’s a great article about how Baby Boomers are selling out Generation Y. Read it before you defend baby boomers in the comments.)

Most recently in the timeline is the  Information Age. You know the story: the rise of computer, then the Internet, and now the rise of mobile everything. But I don’t think that’s the story, really. I think the story of our time is the personal responsibility. Here’s why:

1. You are responsible for your own health.
We used to put our health in the hands of our doctors because the doctor knew best. Today, there is too much information and too many decisions required in dealing with a medical problem for any single doctor to manage.

When my newborn son was diagnosed with hemifacial microsomia, there was a team of fifteen doctors assessing him. The person who ultimately handled the coordination of this data was me, his mom, with no medical training whatsoever.

But even for the healthy, a useful relationship with your doctor is quickly becoming an anachronism. Newsweek reports that the average amount of time a patient has to explain symptoms before being interrupted by a doctor is 23 seconds. Doctors are so overworked that they are seeing about 30% more patients than is recommended to ensure quality medical care. You are better off using the Internet to figure things out for yourself, which most of us do anyway, and then going to a doctor to double check.

2. You are responsible for your own retirement.
There is not going to be Social Security for you. I love the article about how the Baby Boomers have sold out the whole country so much that I’m going to link to it for the second time in this post. Right here. Because here’s a great quote about today’s politicians: “This isn’t conservatism. It’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby boom generation.”

There is also not going to be a company that gives you a gold watch and some sort of security blanket to go home with after 40 years of service. More likely is a pink slip after three-to-five years of service, over and over again, until you can’t work anymore. And there will be no children who will take you into their home when you get old. I know, there has not been this for a long time. There had been this practice, before Social Security and before pensions. But it’s unheard of now.

3. You are responsible for educating your children.
Public school began as a safe place for kids to go while their parents worked in factories. Today school has evolved into the best babysitting service in the world. But the truth is that your kids do not need to be in school to learn. Your kids were born knowing how to learn. Math? Yes, even math.

So we can no longer ship our kids off to school with impunity. It’s completely clear that individualized learning plans are best for kids, and there is no way that public education can afford that, yet it’s very easy for parents to provide it merely by providing food and shelter and love. Which means the education of your children is in your own hands. And, actually, it’s been there forever when you realize that the only part of education that matters is teaching grit and perseverance, and those are values that children learn from parents who model that behavior. Kids never learn that from memorizing facts to pass standardized tests.

4. You are responsible for your career.
I think the theme of this blog is personal responsibility for your career. Make sure you take care of your own career development. You have to keep your learning curve high. If people don’t like you, it’s probably your fault. If you have a bad boss, it’s probably your fault.

What I have found in my own career, and in the careers of people I coach, is that the more responsibility you take, the more you can affect change. If you blame outside forces for your problems, you have to wait for outside forces to fix things for you. Which means you have given up control over your own life.

The Age of Personal Responsibility is exciting. Because the more responsibility we take, the more control we have over our own happiness. And we are lucky to be living right now.

89 replies
  1. Dan Strayer
    Dan Strayer says:

    Seth Godin, I hope you’re reading this. Because this goes right along with your viewpoint in Linchpin.

    • Murad Abel
      Murad Abel says:

      In many ways I believe that both Gen X and Gen Y have been brushed aside by Baby Boomers. Gen X lived with high divorce rates and no ability to move upwards because Baby Boomers spend their money and sat in the market. It would seem that none of this will be cleared until Baby Boomers will completely retire. The only problem is that Gen X may be unprepared and thrown in over their heads to lead Gen Y. Just some silly thoughts.

  2. laura
    laura says:

    I disagree. I think that personal responsibility has always been key. I think the difference is that it is this age in which it is finally accepted for people to question “the way things are done”. I think the the advent of science and technology have washed away the inviolability of religion and tradition when it comes to the way that institutions actually function in our lives. I think that as a result, people have begun experimenting. And as individuals leave the system the all or nothing nature of its composition is revealed. Our medical, economic, political, and social systems cannot survive peicemeal as they always have. So rather than picking and choosing between the traditional structures and the various options made available as alternatives in the last 200 years, we are forced to either reform and reinvent these structures to accommodate the raised expctations and resources of the current age, or else abandon them for new approaches that function on the level of the individual. I guess I agree that personal responsibility is required in order to be successful in all this, but I guess I see it as more the effect than an emerging trend in itself. It is like an adaptive advantage. Like you could say, an age of webbed feet, when an age of mud is more to the point. Personal responsibility has always been required to navigate the vagaries of life on a societal scale. In fact, the cracks for people to fall into have historically been far wider and deeper and ignored by the polite. Look how many American presidents have died in poverty for example. But now, although the ground is firmer for many, areas that onc

  3. laura
    laura says:

    (continued… Whoops). Once seemed safe need to be more carefully negotiated by classes that were once insulated from worrying because they survived basically by and for the institutions in question. I think it is a pretty cool place in history to be, because everything is changing so fast. That said, I think a sense of balance and flexibility that includes a sense of personal responsibility is pretty vital to keep on top of the wave of progress. :D

  4. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    This is so timely for me.
    1. My bommer 60 something father who just got out of a jail is a burden, and the most narcisstic self-centered person I know. He wants everyone else to solve his problems and has no clue how to get together to be responsible for himself.
    2. My husband was just diagnosed with cancer, and between a health insurance with a huge deductible, and doctors who have no clue what anything costs or how to follow-up with lab reports, blood tests etc., it has turned into a small finance and management project for me.
    3. My 401k is laughable, I wish I could scream at all those financial planners who said the miracle of compound interest would amaze me the years to come. Well 20 years later I am utterly not amazed.
    4. While I don’t have kids, the neices and nephews bad education haunts even me, because I want someone to be able to pay into the social security system.
    5. I just this week started a new job that many people advised me against because it was “too much work”, but I knew I had to do it to learn a skill that was transferable to other companies.

  5. Katy
    Katy says:

    I agree with your points except I have a serious quibble with the Esquire article on the boomers.
    When it comes to the blue collar manufacturing sector in America, I’ve actually worked in that industry over the past 14 years. Some of the union workers in the midwest would proudly show me their paychecks, since they made 100,000/year to sit on their asses and read the newspaper. Being a young kid at the time, I was amazed and wondered how they managed to get such a cushy situation.
    Guess what? Those jobs are gone because the manufacturer we worked for went bankrupt a couple years later.

    Now I work in manufacturing in the Southeast. Our factory workers make a living wage. There are no unions here. Things are much better than they were in the Midwest.

    So generalizations about how union/blue collar workers are being “gutted”, as if that is somehow a bad thing, are stupid to me.

    I will say that the union people who screwed over manufacturing in America the worst are by far the boomers. They absolutely demanded $100k/yr salaries to the detriment of the companies, the future, and the young workers coming up. Factory work will never pay big money and it shouldn’t.

    Otherwise – I agree with everything being referenced here. We are in a very bad situation

    • David Santy
      David Santy says:

      In essence, the problem with unions is a problem that the rest of the US has. If you’re at the top of the heap, you almost have to fight off raises and bonuses with a stick. If you’re at the entry-level though, your prospects are dismal. I’ve seen the very same in non-union companies as well. Employees are paid based on “time served” rather than skill, expertise, and output.

      Yet, while previous generations had the benefit of seeing their wages increased as years went by, young people today are facing utter stagnancy in compensation. It’s not uncommon for wages to fall behind inflation, all the while worker efficiency goes up. Someone is reaping the benefits of increased efficiency, but it’s not the blue collar workers.

      It’s a problem of social mobility that is ever increasing with the dwindling on the middle class in America. The greater disparity between the upper echelons and the lower class, the fewer opportunities for growth for those who lack the benefit of being born rich.

      Conservatives don’t practice what they preach when it comes to unions. They shout about union greed, how union workers pad their bank accounts with the sweat of “regular” hard working Americans. Yet, they continue to legislate tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, their campaign contributors, placing more of the national burden on the middle and lower class. It’s a smokescreen. The hate for unions has little to do with their alleged corrupt morals and everything to do with the fact that they have a large degree of liberal support.

      It’s not about making America better and creating more jobs, it’s about petty, divisive partisan politics, plain and simple.

      • MM
        MM says:

        I was reading David’s comment thinking, “This guy has GOT to be from Wisconsin.” I clicked your link and turns out I was right! Good analysis of unions.(from one Wisconsinite to another)

      • Katy
        Katy says:

        Conservatives don’t care about unions, true enough. And the left doesn’t either — everyone only cares about which faction will give them the most money for elections.

        The problem is still, in my experience, that old men *proudly* showed me their 100k/year tax returns, while they read the newspaper all day. There was no shame. None. They felt they “paid their dues” and deserved to collect gigantic paychecks and benefit packages that bankrupted the company, and not do any more work to justify it.

        They’ve ruined whole companies, sent entire markets overseas, and now they scream and whine and threaten Boeing when it tries to move to South Carolina (a non union state!)

        The young people here in South Carolina were so excited for Boeing to come here and give them more jobs — but we’re still being screwed by the boomers in Seattle.
        It’s true – the boomers have completely f***ed us over.

  6. Lucia
    Lucia says:

    “The Age of Personal Responsibility is exciting. …And we are lucky to be living right now.”
    I totally agree, still, I feel so much pressure because of this, like there’s too much to handle… you’re either a fully integrated person who can handle this or you’re in a big trouble…

  7. chris
    chris says:

    I think this is only half the story. The other half is that while you take charge of your life personally, you ALSO form alliances, and build communities aimed at common goals. You network in a grassroots way–forget the already established institutions (education, medicine, politics).

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a great point! The nature of having a support system changes when we are responsible for first building our own community and then our network within our community and then our own support system.

      People say “I’m bad at networking” and what they really mean is they don’t want to take personal respnsibiiity for their own network. They wish they were back in the time when people did not move around and the church they grew up in and the company they spent their whole life in were their de facto network.

      This is a great example of why the Age of Personal Responsibility is so great – because a network we construct for ourselves is much stronger and much more versatile than one someone else made for us.


  8. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    Personal responsibility =risk Staying with the status quo is actually more risky than making changes in your life although many people perceive it as the opposite.

    I’m 47, I’ve raised my kids and I’m going back to school to pick up some graphic design skills. I already earned a degree in marketing years ago. It’s worthless today,

  9. Betrh
    Betrh says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have said and some of the comments. It’s always about personal responsibility. I do have some problems with the Esquire article you linked to twice. While they site the Pew Trust as a source for their stats, they obviously didn’t fact check the “85% of college grads move back home” quote. This falsehood has gone viral in the news media. PolitiFact found the number came from an organization that no longer exists, whose former leader can’t explain where his number came from and census data dose not back it up.

    So if this stat is wrong, I distrust the other numbers.

  10. Tyler Hurst
    Tyler Hurst says:

    Does personal responsibility include getting help for an allegedly abusive relationship or does just sharing the story and a pic cover it?

    Look forward to your answer.

  11. fred doe
    fred doe says:

    Dear Ms. Trunk I have been paying into social security since the best part of you was running down your old mans leg. ( I mean this in a respectful way) It is not entitlements (that’s a dance with semantics) it’s a bill that’s come due. Pay it off and in 20 years i’ll be farting dust. Then if people are living in plywood shacks around your neighborhood it;s on you. There’s only one thing that has made change in history and that is violence. Good luck:)

    • Katy
      Katy says:

      You weren’t “paying in” to SS. That’s your problem if you mistook plain and simple taxes as some sort of retirement account.

      I’m “paying in” too – and I’ll never be able to retire.
      ugh ugh ugh

  12. zan
    zan says:

    demographic generalizations are convenient for marketing purposes, but they denigrate the individuals in each generation, many of whom don’t fit the generalization.

    penelope, i take personal responsibility for the fact that your demographic generalizations piss me off. i’d go into detail, but i have other writing to do.

  13. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    There is another reason why Boomers aren’t being taken in by their children when they get old. It’s because they are taking care of their grandchildren while their divorced or never-married children work somewhere for minimum wage. Those Gen-X kids never picked up useful job skills, but they sure learned how to procreate in the back seat of a car.

    By the way, I was born in 1946, so that makes me one of the oldest Boomers. I haven’t retired yet. The Greatest Generation has been screwing the rest of us out of our Social Security. Many of them also collected lavish union wages and benefits until they finally killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. We’ll never have the benefits they got, and our kids will get bupkis.

  14. Abigail Gorton
    Abigail Gorton says:

    Penelope, I’d like to take the Esquire article seriously, but the first sentence talks about the gap between average earnings for young and old. The accompanying graphic shows the same math but for average net worth. The author is confusing earnings and net worth! HUGE mistake. Loses too much credibility for me.

    Congress may be the oldest ever, but how do they shape up a an average of current life expectancy? Which in my opinion HAS to be the answer to social security. People used to die younger. Social Security kicked in a few years before the end. The starting age needs to go up, then go up again until the books balance. As a proportion of life expectancy it might get closer to where it started.

    • David Santy
      David Santy says:

      Social Security is in such dire straights for a number of reasons.

      Baby boomers make up 1/4 of the population of the US. They have all reached retirement age by now. Not all of them will retire, but still. Then you have pre-boomers who are still with us. That’s an enormous portion of the population eligible for SS benefits.

      Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials, respectively, are in smaller numbers than the Baby Boomers. Gen X through Millennials don’t have the potential earnings that Boomers did either.

      So, you’ve got a smaller percentage of the population paying into SS, with lower wages. Combine that with the drastically lower taxes on upper tax brackets than decades past and you’ve got a nation in trouble.

      • JKB
        JKB says:

        I hate to burst your bubble but only the first couple years of Baby Boomers have reached Social Security age. There is another 17 years to go before the “official” boomers are eligible to apply for benefits. The peak does arrive till right toward the end.

        • David Santy
          David Santy says:

          You got me there. My numbers were wrong and only 5 years of Boomers have reached retirement age thus far. So it’s a looming catastrophe instead of a present one.

          Take my present tense and change it to future tense, then take my points into consideration. Am I wrong? Are there no consequences of the largest generation of Americans in history becoming elderly? Are there no consequences of smaller, underpaid generations having to bear the burden?

          I’ll give you a for instance and say that private health insurance is facing almost the same fate as Social Security. More going out than coming in, so far as what is required not to raise premiums, anyway.

          • Pirate Jo
            Pirate Jo says:

            I think you would enjoy ‘The Clash of Generatoins’ by Laurence Kotlikoff. Not only do they do an excellent job of outlining the problem, they offer some very good solutions.

  15. Colin
    Colin says:

    The Esquire article you link to not once but twice contradicts your thesis that we are in an age of personal responsibility. The game is stacked against the youth and there’s no way out: that’s the message from Esquire. You cannot step up the personal responsibility when the game is stacked against you. Very contradictory and no room for personal responsibility.

    If the jobs are not there with a sufficient income to save for a retirement, to get married, and to have children, then exactly when does the personal responsibility step in? Is it when the only job you can find does not have health insurance so you just willingly bow out of the game of life when you get T-boned by a drunk driver? That’s the responsible thing to do, right?

  16. chris
    chris says:

    Personal responsibility is not the same as full-out control. For example, in #1, Penelope takes on the care coordination of all the many doctors, though she cannot take on the prescribing and clinical medical/surgical care. In Colin’s example of getting t-boned by a drunk driver when you have no health insurance, you still have options, one of which is throwing yourself on the mercy of the health care system and paying forever afterwards–probably eventually including medical bankruptcy.

    In the example of changing ones own behavior in order to effect change upon a marriage (thus preventing divorce), you can do this to a certain degree. But you cannot control the situation entirely. You still have to know when to hold up and when to fold up.
    Because the other person in the relationship still has agency, still has/makes choices.

    In the example of taking a job that only pays minimum wage and no insurance, you can still choose–to live one day at a time, to wait for and/or create a better opportunity. You won’t save towards retirement, you won’t buy a home, you will postpone having kids till you can make your move. I believe that personal responsibility, in that case, involves still being able to choose one’s baby steps; refusing to succumb to being trapped; readying oneself to pounce once the opportunity presents itself–that is, preparing to jump in and take a risk.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      You are always responsible for your own actions and behavior. This is the case even in a communist society. But you also exist as part of a bigger system – if you are born a baby boomer you cannot be held responsible to be born at that time. If you are t-boned by a drunk driver you are not responsible for sustaining life threatening injuries. If after 50 jobs with the pink slip every 2 years you are not physically able to work any more – this is just the way of human aging. That is why we created social security and health insurance – to protect the weak, and those who need help. It is being responsible for society around you.

  17. Paul
    Paul says:

    I agree with all of this. I have pretty much structured my life around those tenets. What’s been amazing to me is how much push-back I get from the people who would frankly have to do less work if I took responsibility for all of that. Don’t manage your own investments, you can’t be trusted with your own money. Want to teach your own kids? First you have to jump through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops. Even with the medical thing – my son was born with a congenital heart defect that required open heart surgery when he was 3 days old. I was baffled by the amount of arguing that my wife and I had to do with one set of doctors who obviously had not talked to another set of doctors.

  18. Patrick Erwin
    Patrick Erwin says:

    I agree with your list, especially #4 – too many people I’ve talked to still float in this delusional, outmoded universe from 20-30 years ago that a career is something you don’t have to work at to sustain…that once you land a job, it’s your forever career pathway. These are usually the same folks who get a rude awakening when layoffs or closures hit – because they never took the initiative to think about other options, or stay competitive and sharp in their own work.

    I generally agree with #1 but diagnosing yourself from Google is a bit iffy. I’ve learned to be super-organized when I go to the doctors – usually writing everything down on a document (bullet points and everything) and handing it to them or their nurse/assistant. And it tends to work MUCH better that way. I don’t have to wait for a chance to speak, they have a clear list of questions and issues to address and respond accordingly, and everyone walks away happy.

  19. Sudha
    Sudha says:

    Again, Penelope, you hit the nail on the head!

    I especially loved the point about personal responsibility, specifically the more responsibility you assume, the more you can affect the change!

  20. Heather McCurdy
    Heather McCurdy says:

    Living on a farm, I’m surprised that you didn’t include a responsibility to food. The farmer’s market and foodie trend is astounding and forcing corporations to change thier businesses or be more secretive about process/ingredients.
    Regarding #1, the trends in pregnancy related care and birth highlight your point, perhaps with more clarity in terms of services you need vs don’t need (Maybe you wanted a topic that was gender neutral?). Pregnancy is something that women have handled quite well TYVM but the general medical community has a different opinion (midwife = witches anyone?). The scene is radically evolving … Obv, there’s pros/cons to medicated v unmedicated and I’m not dissing the epidural, but it was my responsibilty to educate myself about what happened to my body, what to do when my water broke, what are hospital procedures, what drugs would they offer, what those drugs would do to my body and so forth. Even the birth classes are skewed, so if I take a class from the hospital the information is very ‘doctor friendly’ to the Bradley Method doulas who I think would like to go into the woods and give birth. The other point being, you have personal responsibility to be informed about informing yourself.

  21. Becon
    Becon says:

    I make my living as an economist. And there was a working paper recently that said social security is a giant transfer from young to old. But the real nasty part is what effect that transfer has. Savings = investment = capital. The young save, and the old consume. (Buying a house is a giant capital investment.) Our national savings rate went from around 15% to roughly zero. The presence of social security encourages less private savings. Government doesn’t do public investment anymore, it just does massive transfers to the old. So the effect is less capital and lower wages for future generations. (More physical capital = higher wages.) Not only does social security promise the young benefits it can never deliver, it has already irreparably harmed the young by lowering their lifetime wages.

  22. concerned saver
    concerned saver says:

    The Esquire article compares the average boomer net worth to that of their children in 1984 and 2009. Of course the boomers have more net worth now because they have been saving longer and have owned homes longer. Saving is a really good thing since most people will live off that in their retirement given that pensions are a thing of the past and social security is subjected to political whims. Saving is the ultimate personal responsibility—of course it isn’t good for growing the economy but that is a different article.

    Most boomers did not have significant net worth when they were the age of their kids–in fact they had less adjusted for inflation.

  23. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think we’re living in the Age of Empowerment thanks to technology and the creative uses of it. Everything from self-publishing, career and brand management, education and social media to entrepreneurship and working remotely has been transformed by the Internet and technology advances. Individuals have more tools and influence at their disposal than ever before. Consumers have more ways to express their pleasure (or displeasure) about a product and get help when they need it.

  24. CamMi Pham
    CamMi Pham says:

    I grew up in Asia where there is pretty much no support from govt or anyone….we are all responsible for everything. I don’t think it is a new. North Americian just forget it because you are luckier than many people around the world. It is time to wake up.

    My parents taught me to be take the responsibility for everything….

  25. Petra
    Petra says:

    I can no longer go on reading this blog. While at first I garnered some useful insights on how to be more effective in my career, ultimately Ms. Trunk’s advice is cheerleading for conformity and status quo. The history of progress is the history of people who *rebelled* against the status quo. The fact that our culture is declining — economically, artistically, and morally — seems to be of no concern to anyone here. It’s all about adapting to decline and somehow being plucky and gung-ho in spite of it all. Gosh darn!

    In all seriousness, I know why I am with the humanities people, not the marketing people. Marilynne Robinson: “Why does society exist, if not to accommodate our lives?” Perhaps to accommodate shareholders? And *that’s* why your doctor can’t spend time with you, your schools are bad? Rebel against it, people. Read last Sunday’s New York Times op-ed on capitalists as psychopaths, and think about it. Because reading this blog, I have concluded that Penelope Trunk is among those people who don’t want you to think.

    • Helen
      Helen says:

      This blog is moving further and further to the Right as more of the more sensible commenters jump ship (see the comments threads in the domestic violence posts.) I guess that doesn’t reflect well on me for continuing to dip into this blog on occasion. there is more than a whiff of Ayn Rand in this post.

      I came across this article today – a good counter argument to Trunk’s homeschooling fetish:

  26. Lori
    Lori says:

    the interesting thing is that the people who *take* the responsibility will rise to the top and the people who resist taking it will sink. or become incapacitated from lyme disease or die from skin cancer or suffer similarly from something else their doctor will misdiagnose so that they’re unable to rise.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      you mean if I am your friend/relative and am in the hospital dying of skin cancer (which by the way is not always easy to diagnose) you will tell me that I just did not rise to the top because I was unable to recognize the disease? That I simply did not take personal responsibility and now I get what I deserved? Life is messy and difficult and not all misfortunate comes from lack of taking responsibility.

  27. Ellie
    Ellie says:

    I would like to offer that I think we have always needed personal responsibility, but is more important now than ever. Why? I think Gen Y is viewed as being selfish, entitled, lazy, and whatever. So, if Gen Yers decided to take responsibility for their careers, education, friendship, etc they will be perceived as very “responsible” by teachers, bosses,colleagues and other people who we may need to impress.

  28. Carmen
    Carmen says:

    We’ve (I’ve) gotten to the point where, at least in my career, taking personal responsibility means lowering my expectations from my job, making the most of what I’ve got and just being grateful for it, and then finally, lowering my standard of living, living well within my means, downsizing, doing whatever it takes to not just survive, but somehow save money and keep thriving during all these changes.

    It’s not only the age of personal responsibility for yourself, but it’s the age of personal responsibility and dealing with everyone else’s bad decisions that are trickling down on top of you.

    This post should be called “How to Cope When Everyone Around You is Making Bad Decisions”.

    • chris
      chris says:

      Carmen, your reply reminds me of a meditation in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book (Wherever You Go, There You Are) entitled “Is That All There Is?”

      Yes, that is all there is. Stop the longing that nags at you/me. Lower your expectations and accept a simpler version of.

      And the natural, logical consequence, which you also allude to in your reply, is to learn adaptation/resilience.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I like the idea of personal responsibility involving adjusted expectations. Too often I see people refusing to adjust. But if you can’t live in reality you can’t get control over your reality.


      • Pirate Jo
        Pirate Jo says:

        I think that’s because for a lot of people, lowering expectations feels like abandoning hope and giving in to despair – accepting that things will never get better. They cling to false hope because that’s the only hope they have.

  29. chris
    chris says:

    I think the areas highlighted by PT for taking on (more) personal responsibility are the right areas, though not an exhaustive list.
    1) health care: proactively care for yourself–that means preventive means, lifestyle change (nutrition? exercise?), using the broken health care system less;
    2) retirement planning, a sticky wicket: mostly because we are slip-sliding-away from the era when we believed in “the common good”. The common good is the basis for social security and the basis of insurance.
    3) directly educating ones own kids: or seriously consider not having kids. At least examine your motives for having kids. If you are not going to take a great deal of responsibility in raising them, don’t have them to begin with. Don’t throw money at their daycare, preschool, grammar and high school. Throw yourself at them: your values, your smarts, your wisdom, your kindness, your sense of discipline.
    4) career resilience: play “what if” frequently–What if I moved from the city to the country? What if I moved from the United States to an European country? What if I worked for a small business that was struggling? What if my company cut my benefits? What if I was the CEO of my company? What if I was forced into early retirement? What if I wanted to retire early? What could I give up to be happier on my job, as opposed to having a bigger salary/benefit package and being more stressed? What if I was a temp and I had to learn a new job and develop new skills every few weeks?

    I would add to Penelope’s 4 categories “mental health/spiritual well-being” and take responsibility for my own happiness and healthiness, deep down.

  30. Adam frost
    Adam frost says:

    Kevin Hershewe is a seasoned executive with progressive inbound and outbound, multi-site, call center operations experience. He has extensive experience in the areas of customer service and quality assurance. He shows a strong  ability to plan and organize high-level business affairs while maintaining efficient control of financial and human resources. He was single handily responsible for setting up a tri-lingual call center to accommodate customer service and sales calls. He successfully hired, trained and established servicing standards for the call center operation.He built and Managed a supervisory team in regard to workflow allocation, performance appraisals, training and development and salary recommendations for the center. He implemented and planed new projects and procedures as a result of continuous review of current operating methods in relation to client/customer satisfaction. Kevin Hershewe is the type of manager every company needs.

    Sincerely ,
    Adam Frost
    CEO America’s lending tree

  31. Dannielle Blumenthal
    Dannielle Blumenthal says:


    I’m ambivalent about this post.

    On the one hand I agree with your premise. Whether it’s career, parenting, education, and medical care – it really is up to you. There is this myth that the world exists to take care of you, and then you get out there and you are on your own. Previous generations expected to make their own way – today people expect to have things handed to them. Previous generations understood the meaning of commitment – today instant gratification is the rule and the littlest discomfort is an excuse to change everything.

    And you are 100% right about homeschooling!

    On the other I think you expect too little. For example you say that most problems are a person’s own fault. That’s just crazy. A lot of the time people get stuck in a mess, and it’s not of their own making. All they can do is try to get out. (By the way this has to do with being abused as a child – you make everything your fault as a way of getting control.)

    What is brilliant about your blog is how you reframe ugly reality and turn it into something positive.

    Also, I enjoy reading your posts no matter how much I hate reading them sometimes, if that makes any sense.

    Thanks for taking the time.

  32. Ziggy
    Ziggy says:

    There’s a fifth commandment that is just as important as the four Ayn Rand like principles that Penelope offered:

    “You are responsible for the success of your local community.”

    The strategies employed to dismantle America’s middle class may not be the “vast right wing conspiracy” described by Hillary Clinton years ago, but it is well coordinated, deeply funded and absolutely relentless. In short, it’s a group effort, and “divide and conquer” is a key element. Penelope’s four commandments play right into that strategy

    Taking personal responsibility for your life is always a sound idea, but if you are not connected personally to a larger critical mass of other people working to protect the interests of a broader community, then you will be effectively culled from the herd and squashed like a bug in the years ahead.

    It’s called leverage.

    George Carlin identified the key issue all of us face today shortly before his untimely passing: “There’s a club. You’re not in it.” And, perhaps most importantly, he predicted what would happen and what is in fact now transpiring when he said “They’re coming for it all.”

    Penelope’s four commandments work very well in a world with a level playing field. That’s not the case right now, and such a condition has arguably never existed. And is getting worse with each passing day.

    The answers lie not with merely taking personal responsibility but also taking responsibility for your community as well. It’s a damn heavy burden but without community there is no leverage over forces more powerful than individuals.

  33. Lee Garza
    Lee Garza says:

    Just recently began reading your blog. Love your sense of humor and agree with most of your views. Especially your views on right-sizing your lifestyle (more is not necessarily better).

    Haven’t read the link to the article about boomers yet (my parents are on the older side of the boomer generation). But completely agree with your thoughts on personal responsibility.

    Whether we like it or not, the repercussions of failures in healthcare, social security, public education, corporate America, etc. are suffered by us. We can actively work to make things better for ourselves or we can be “victims” when institutions fail us.

    Most of this lack of self-responsibility is relatively new anyway (within the past 60-70 years). Most people forget that prior to then very few people had health insurance. Many kids didn’t complete high school (let alone go to college and leave with 5-figure student loan debt). Retirement didn’t last 30+ years.

    I’m not anti-progress. Many of these institutions have helped advance this country (and the world). But our culture’s feeling of entitlement and relentless pursuit of materialism comes at a cost that someone eventually has to pay.

    Keep up the good work! Always look forward to your posts…….

  34. Jim Lemon
    Jim Lemon says:

    Sorry, like most people, all you commenters are naive.

    There is a inevitable ending to this story. It’s called “War”. It happens oh, every 60-80 years, and has been happening for all of human history, without exception, ever. It is caused by, every 60-80 years, the rise and domination of a generation of “boomers” who are spoiled jerks, screw over the rest of society, and then trigger a war. Then we all fight, a lot of people are killed, horrors beyond imagining, and the survivors vow “never again”.

    Then their kids ignore it all and start the cycle again.

    Hundreds of millions of people killed? Cities burning? Starvation? Nuclear weapons? Children killing parents? Parents oppressing the young? Fascism?

    Check, check, check, check, check. All comin’ down the pike, right on schedule.

    All of you will deny this of course. Until it happens, and your house is a burning hulk, and your sons in the grave. Then you will be so shocked and self-righteous.

    Have a nice day.

    • Rebecca
      Rebecca says:

      I laughed after I read this. Not sure if this was your intent. Sure it rings true, but honestly, what the hell do you do about it? Or was that your point?

      • Jim Lemon
        Jim Lemon says:

        LOL. Actually there isn’t much you can do.

        Just remember that when somebody preaches an “Era of Personal Responsibility” that translates into “screw all the poor people, let them starve.” Then the poor people grab guns and start shooting.

        Just don’t be all offended when all the highfalutin talk of personal responsibility results in your house being burned down.

        And your kids then will have a different concept: “We want an era of shared responsibility for keeping society whole”. They will look back on the “era of personal responsibility” concept with distain.

        • Pirate Jo
          Pirate Jo says:

          Look, I don’t hate poor people. I used to be one.

          But is it too much to ask that people do what they can to help themselves before demanding assitance from others? If you can’t help pull the wagon, at least stop riding in it.

          The Samaritan’s dilemma is real. We’re stuck with people who just keep hitting every branch of the bad decision tree on the way down, and we keep subsidizing them to do it.

          Sure, there’s always that one person, somewhere, who is poor and disabled through “no fault of their own.” Sure, you can lose your job through no fault of your own. But whose fault is it that you never bothered to have a savings account? Or that you’ve never lived within your means, even when you had a job? Yet you STILL decided to have several kids?

          People feel entitled to everything. They’re all about being part of society, when it comes to getting their hands on other people’s money. But when it comes to the part of society where belonging means you give as well as take, not so much.

          • Tom Lemon
            Tom Lemon says:

            That’s a very thoughtful comment. I understand the Samaritan’s Dilemma very very well. I never advocate coddling poor people, and actually I think historically in the US we’ve done a decent job of supporting while not coddling.

            But the problem I have is that “The Era of Personal Responsibliy” fails miserably unless you have a concerted, funded, and aggressive effort to TEACH personal responsibility to the poor. You can’t just say “OK, I wash my hands of you, you’re on your own” and walk away.

            Because that poor person WILL pick up a gun and come after you. And then all your rationalization and internet software and education and thoughtful discussion isn’t worth diddly.

            You said:

            “But is it too much to ask that people do what they can to help themselves before demanding assitance from others?”

            My answer:

            “It might not be too much to ask in the comfort of a cozy internet chat room. But if you’re watching mobs of angry youth burning cars down your street, I suspect the question may become moot.”

        • mysticaltyger
          mysticaltyger says:

          i totally agree with the concept of teaching self reliance to the poor. The problem is, IT’S PRACTICALLY ILLEGAL TO DO THIS in any large scale, organized way. This is done deliberately. The global elite wants a large underclass, and they’ve used all kinds of legislation and demonization to achieve their ends.

          Just try telling poor people they shouldn’t have kids without being married and see what kind of backlash you get from various “rights” groups.

  35. Allan @ Aircraft Cables
    Allan @ Aircraft Cables says:

    I am so tired of hearing about another 200 pound toddler whose mom doesn’t know how to help him. Its the same with racism and every other form of ignorance around, YES it is the parents’ fault.

    It is our responsibility to take care of the child and know what they are doing. That is why they are called “minors” because they are simply too young to know better.

    Kids can be independent and parents can be active with a career or lifestyle but the upbringing of a child is 100% up to the parent.

    Careers are in complete control of each and every one of us. You job/career is out there. Prove that you are better than the person in your spot and its yours. Its that simple. Do it the right way and there is nothing that can stop you from your career.

  36. Jim Lemon
    Jim Lemon says:

    Historically in successful cultures, everyone in society is responsible for upbringing of children. The current BS “It’s all up to the parent” was considered to be insane.

    Insane because, ultimately, if a child is poorly raised then that child can and will become a criminal, a killer, or a beggar, and then will end up ruining everybody’s day.

    So all the “personally responsible” people better start worrying a lot more about the health and education of the dumb kids down the street.

    Get ready for massive tax increases to placate the poor and ignorant masses. Don’t want to pay those taxes? OK get ready for prison or confiscation. Going to run away with your money to Switzerland? Oops, sorry. You don’t have a chance.

    • Pirate Jo
      Pirate Jo says:

      I don’t think we have to worry about too many of them coming after us with guns. Many are so morbidly obese they can barely get off the couch.

      • Pirate Jo
        Pirate Jo says:

        If the people of a country or state want to have a safety net that charges a high rate of tax and pays for an early retirement age, that’s their business. They’re essentially socializing retirement planning. People live in condos to socialize certain costs, too, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to live there. Some people DO like it.

        But the trick is to pay for it. If you want a generous safety net, you have to fund it through taxes – you can’t just borrow it. Otherwise you’re either devaluing your currency or shifting the cost onto the next generation. When people are faced with the TRUE cost of a program, they’ll examine it pretty closely and make sure they are getting their money’s worth. This keeps bad programs out and benefits everyone.

        If we upped our taxes to 50% and were happy with the results we were getting, well, good for us! Somehow I doubt that would be the case, though.

  37. j.
    j. says:

    I agree with this post entirely. In fact, the last comment I wrote on your blog was filled with a lack of my own personal responsibility, which was why writing that comment was like smacking myself in the face. I needed it.

    As a seasoned HR executive, I’ve never been one to support the complainers who come by and say how bad it is for them. My response, “then do something about it.” (Aside from blatant abuse/violence/etc.).

    Also, I self diagnose my medical conditions all the time using the internet and friends. I’m accurate about 99.9% of the time. Which sort of goes right in line with your whole bit on educating our kids. We’re born with capabilities beyond what we can imagine.

    Thanks, Penelope.

    • Lydia
      Lydia says:

      So you ignore the concerns of the employees for whom, in your job description and in the law, you are responsible for? How seasoned of you.

  38. Katie Aiken Ritter
    Katie Aiken Ritter says:

    Penelope: I’ve decided you are the Howard Stern of blogging. In his movie, they had that funny scene where his ratings were being discussed, and it turned out that people who hated him listened MORE than people who liked him…ergo my remark. You’ve got a fascinated following, even if they don’t agree with you some or all of the time. Hard to accomplish, but you’ve done it. Nice.

    Item 2: damn it, I had sketched up a design fr my new blog because http://www.AfghanistanTourOfDuty.blogspot.com has been finished for a while) and after a hiatus I need to start again. When the new one goes live, you’re going to notice an uncanny similarity in heading. I’m sorry. After years of treasuring anonymity, I have to get out of that comfort zone, and the only way is to brand myself in a big way. Big letters. With my name. You’ll see.

    Kudos, Penelope. Hard to pull off what you’ve done, and I intend to learn from you.

  39. Gib Wallis
    Gib Wallis says:

    I loved this post. I liked how you wove together lots of your themes (steampunk, for example).

    Sometimes it seems that the only way to get ahead with anything is to become your own meta-manager. You’re not getting over a cold, you’re managing your doctor. You’re not doing better at one job. You’re managing your career. You’re not just living, you’re managing all the aspects of your life, including the ever increasing need to manage your ability to mange things where you have no expertise but a lot at stake.

    • chris
      chris says:

      Yes. The expertise of experts is often questionable.

      Best to become your own expert, because, as you say, you have more motivation to find a solution because you have more at stake.

  40. Mike
    Mike says:

    I agree our government has spent us all into bankruptcy. It needs to do an about face before the bills come due or there will be hell to pay. I have to say though that as a boomer who speaks with his friends about politics I am not aware of anyone who feels our desires are being carried out by our government. Everyone says vote them all out but somehow we never do.

  41. Sue
    Sue says:

    My husband & I are boomers (58 & 59) w/2 grown children (36 & 33). We homeschooled them when they were elementary school age & we lived in the S. F. Bay Area. When we moved to the Midwest for a job, the town we moved into had excellent schools, but we continued to “educate” them at home w/the help of no TV; plenty of family experiences like going clamming & then making our own clam chowder on vacations back to CA or picking fruit in the orchards & then canning our abundance from there & our own garden; making our own bread; having only 3 chickens, but so many eggs we were able to share w/our neighbors & friends; traveling to places like South America, the PRC, Curaçao, Antigua, the Grand Canyon–husband & son have done the rim-to-rim hike many times; camping & traveling poshly at various times; just experiencing life…

    My husband’s fierce budgeting from the time they were born allowed us to do all the traveling; save for their college tuition so they never had to take out student loans & they got full rides & living stipends in grad school; still saving for my long-term nursing home care, if that happens to be in my future, as I was rejected by 5 insurance companies due to my many health issues that I “brought” onto myself, I guess, by having been born to parents who had “bad” genes & passed on SCA 8–an ataxia condition for which there is no cure or treatment other than attempting pain reduction & modifying my lifestyle & mindset to accept this is my new “reality”–a book by Jon Kabut-Zinn called something like “Full Catastrophe Living” helped tremendously w/that.

    Accepting that chronic pain is my “lot in life” was very hard, but after 3 years now I’ve accepted it & started living fully again w/new expectations of what my quality of life is instead of putting my life on hold while waiting for the pain to disappear.

    We had one car in CA. He commuted to work on a bike; I packed him a sack lunch every day; we shopped at Goodwill & bought food in bulk in a family food co-op we joined–even fresh vegetables that we took turns w/other families from our food co-op going to the huge marketplace where restaurants purchase their produce so we could deliver 3 boxes of fresh & unique produce to each family every 2 weeks. I had to look up Jerusalem artichokes & bok choy to figure out how to cook them as I grew up in a boarding school & wasn’t exposed to preparing food.

    I go to a nurse practitioner who specializes in treating patients w/my health issues as she spends at least 45 min. w/me for &125.00 (which insurance will not pay any part of due to a loophole they found when she left a medical organization to have her own private practice; insurance did pay a portion of her fee even though she was out-of-network when she worked “under” the umbrella of that medical group), but she is authorized to prescribe medication in our state & I want a medical professional who knows me, my life, my family, etc. & can best assess which medication would benefit me. She works in a collaborative effort w/me as I also have researched my various health issues & different medications & treatments.

    When I see the M.D.’s I bring in my list & run the agenda. If they don’t want to treat me as a patient, that is their choice. At my initial appts. w/all docs I explain my expectations to give them a chance to decline to treat me. So far only one has.

    There is no way I would put up w/the distracted M.D. who writes a script for some medication w/out knowing the full circumstances of my life. The n.p. also communicates w/the neurologist, pain management doc, surgeons (3 surgeries in the last year), anesthesiologists as some of my medications make putting me under w/a “general” a challenge as I did unfortunately once experience waking up during surgery & being unable to communicate. What a nightmare. I now have lots of special monitors to communicate to the surgeons if I wake up & cannot talk & need to be dosed again.

    And she also communicates w/ my therapist. Again, I had to research & interview many therapists until I found a good fit (also take part in her Dialectical Behavioral Therapy {DBT} group even though I don’t have the dx of “borderline” for which this therapy was originally designed).

    I could qualify for long-term disability payments from the gov’t as I had to quit work 3 years ago when the pain became too intense, but I don’t want to take a “handout” when we can pay for my medical care w/tightening our belts. I think it is fine for people who have legitimate need for the money; I don’t “need” it at this point.

    My husband’s careful budgeting & saving has also allowed us to pay for in-home care for the 96-year-old “nanny” that raised him so she could remain in her home & not have to be placed in a nursing home. It feels great to be able to provide that care for her; she raised my husband well!

    I always floss & brush my teeth. Now that’s taking responsibility as I am 58 & have only had one cavity when I was pregnant w/my first. I guess the old wives’ tale about that was true in my case, but it freaked me out!

    My children are cavity-free!

  42. Jen Gresham
    Jen Gresham says:

    Do you have a link for the HBR article? I assume it’s not on the web, or you would have shared it instead of the one to wikipedia, but I’m too curious not to ask!

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