My great-grandfather went to New York City at 16 with the proverbial dollar in his pocket, toiled in obscurity for 20 years, then out of nowhere started a restaurant which ultimately became a chain of 10 restaurants.
Another great-grandfather was born in Boston of an undocumented Scottish immigrant, went to Brooklyn with his family, and with a high school education at best became an entrepreneur and a renowned outdoorsman.
I love those stories about daring, adventurous men who had dreams and the ambition to achieve them.
Alas, that’s not the way it is today.
Oh, there are the billionaires whose stories continue to captivate mere mortals, and there is great need for inventors and risk takers who will be key to preserving the economy as things change all around us.
It’s just that rugged individualism is rarely enough to pull it off any more. Today, it takes not just smarts and a bold idea but mountains of seed money, connections and apparently a safety net that can also be a trampoline. There are going to be a lot more failures than successes.
Author Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in a recent guest column in The Boston Globe, “If we want to encourage a whole generation of Americans to invent, innovate, create and experiment, we have to provide far more security.”
Slaughter’s latest book, “Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work and Politics,” came out last month.
Promoting her work, she wrote in the Globe about the many obstacles facing innovators when they are also trying to have balanced lives.
For example, she says, “If mortgaging your house to finance a new venture means losing it and ending up on the street, or if a health emergency could spell bankruptcy, or if dropping out of school to follow a crazy idea means being unable to repay student loans, then it’s better to stick to the familiar and proven, no matter how unsatisfying.”
She maintains that the social programs proposed by progressives, such as universal health care, child tax credits, “and subsidies of many kinds,” would take some of the risk out of risk-taking.
Then she notes many of these proposals are part of the president’s economic plan, which would cost in the trillions of dollars. “The Biden infrastructure package has many of these elements. But it really should be thought of as a blueprint for a new generation of American innovation,” Slaughter concludes.
I happen to agree that progressive programs are necessary for many reasons, but I don’t think they’re the key to innovation and invention.
Some conservatives may also wish things were like they were in the Gilded Age of the 1800s, but today the emphasis is on opportunity for all, not just men.
Even the new Cinderella musical has the step-daughter turning down the prince’s marriage proposal to pursue a career as a dressmaker.
“Success” has been redefined today to mean more than business success. Opportunity has been extended to groups that were once not allowed to compete. That is unquestionably good, and may well pay off in the end, many people contend.
As for those two great-grandfathers mentioned above, a son of the first married a daughter of the second, which is how I came to learn 100 years later about Bristol’s Dining Rooms and a big-time drug store on Newspaper Row that was a front for a barroom, as well as many other descendants of James Bristol and Walter Lauder.
Some of these people were successful in life, some were not. I probably am the least adventurous of them all. For me, it’s enough to be able to research and write about ancestors.