Chrysler's Super Bowl ad is powerful, moving and inspirational. It's also dead wrong.
"Halftime in America" isn't selling us cars so much as it's selling us the playbook of the Greatest Generation. A playbook of hard work and perseverance. Obedient factory workers, who don't think different, they just build bigger cars, better planes or faster widgets. Chrysler even tapped Clint Eastwood, the era's toughest tough-guy, to coach us through our rough patch.
"It's halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they are hurting. They are all wondering what they are going to do to make a comeback," Eastwood narrates. "And we're all scared because this isn't a game."
Bingo. We're terrified because the playbook for American success is failing us. For fifty years, the deal's been simple: Go to college, get a stable job, buy a house and earn a gold watch. It wasn't easy. Each required hard work, perseverance, sacrifices and resolve. But, it was simple. Obvious. People never had to think about how to succeed.
"Quit your whining and get a job," our grandparents are telling us. "And, Occupiers, get off our lawn!" This formula worked for the Greatest Generation, and they've endowed it to us. But, the Grand Bargain of the 1950s is gone and isn't coming back. Ever.
Now, if you go to college, you become burdened by student loan debt. Our national student loan debt exceeds one trillion dollars. When we graduate, there aren't many stable jobs. The Economist reports that America's under-25 unemployment rate is more than18 percent. This generation will have more job changes in our 20s than the Greatest Generation had in their lifetimes. If you buy a house, you're probably underwater. The gold watch only goes to public employees.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, "Since unemployment among young college graduates still shows no improvement, the class of 2011 will likely face the highest unemployment rate for young college graduates since the Great Recession began."
Like American politicians, the Chrysler ad is spot-on with America's problems, but then offers a flawed formula for success. We're not in the industrial age anymore, a time when more work, harder work, translated into greater rewards. Millennials are working hard, but it's not helping. We're in the information age and a forever recession.
"Why do we believe that jobs where we are paid really good money to do work that can be systemized, written in a manual and/or exported are going to come back ever?" writes best-selling author and entrepreneur Seth Godin. "The industrial age, the one that started with the industrial revolution, is fading away. It is no longer the growth engine of the economy and it seems absurd to imagine that great pay for replaceable work is on the horizon."
In January, vice president Joe Biden promised high school students in Columbus, Ohio that the Obama administration was working to put the "great-pay for replaceable-work" bargain back together.
There was a bargain in place for last 50 years that if you worked hard, you played by the rules, you helped increase productivity in America, you got a piece of the action. You benefited... A college degree was more than a ticket to be able to make a living; it was about who you are... about the American Dream, the dream that your parents could put you in a position where you could do better than they could do.
Biden's big solution was the administration's "Pay-As-You-Earn" student loan plan, which limits federal student loan payments to 10 percent of discretionary income. The Obama administration, like its Republican predecessor, has doubled down on a flawed strategy of American toughness and government bailouts. They're committed to the bargain, just at a discounted rate.
America can't succeed by bailing out failed institutions. Come to think of it, the Super Bowl ad represents another outdated advertising institution. It's blasting information to the masses without regard for who your customers really are. While 110 million people may have watched the ad, only a fraction of us are in the market to buy a new Chrysler. It doesn't matter how many times I view the ad: it will never persuade me to buy a car because I don't need one. Also, as a rule, I never buy new cars. This year's Super Bowl ads sold for $3.5 million for a 30-second spot. Just think of how much targeted advertising that could have bought.
The American recovery won't come from Detroit's dogged persistence. It will come from innovative computer geeks and social misfits. Instead of a pep talk, we need a lesson in computer programming. Less Dirty Harry, more Steve Jobs and Peter Thiel.
Thiel, the venture capitalist behind Paypal and Facebook, is encouraging innovation in an unconventional way with his 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowships. "Thiel Fellows are given a no-strings-attached grant of $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education," the Foundation's website explains. "They are mentored by our network of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that can't be replicated in any classroom. Rather than just studying, you're doing."
Like me, you might be too old to earn a Thiel Fellowship. That doesn't mean we're helpless. Google fellow Sebastian Thrun recently traded his tenured position at Stanford University to teach classes online for free. Millennials can improve our lot by visiting Udacity.com and enrolling in a free computer science course. In seven weeks, we'll know how to build a search engine. We'll have a valuable skill that didn't require $14 million for a Super Bowl ad or $12.5 billion for a government bailout.
Come to think of it, Dirty Harry might be right after all, "We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines."
Our roaring search engines.
Follow John Hrabe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JohnHrabe