A FEW YEARS back, a film called "Hoop Dreams" showed us the dark side of the ghetto teenager's dream: the fantasy of attaining a life of ease and comfort through success on the basketball court. The film revealed that the dream becomes reality for very few, and that disappointment and failure are much more common results.
With increasing frequency, we see today's middle- and upper-middle-class young people mesmerized by their own unattainable dreams. For them, it's not becoming a professional basketball player; it's becoming Bill Gates. We regularly hear and read of teenagers talking about positioning themselves for quick, phenomenal wealth -- wealth that will enable them later to move on to what they say they "really" want to do with their lives.
That this is not simply idle, harmless adolescent chatter is becoming more apparent. According to a recent news report, a decline in the number of male college students is expected to continue through the next decade. The reason, according to the report, is that stories of non-degreed high-tech successes -- such as Mr. Gates -- as well as the continued spotlighting of fabulously wealthy sports stars who lack college degrees, have caused significant numbers of young men to conclude that college is not "cool."
Images of cutting-edge, uneducated Internet tycoons are unquestionably undermining the importance once accorded the acquisition of knowledge. The chancellor of the University of Colorado has said that the lure of high-tech salaries is bleeding her institution of male students and faculty. Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia has said that educators have to find a way to lure young people back to college, "even if sitting in class reading 'Beowulf' doesn't seem as exciting as earning $75,000 designing Web pages."
The distortion of values and roles that our burgeoning high-tech economy is producing apparently does not end at the doorsteps of our institutions of higher learning. Many business school graduates reportedly are dropping out in order to pursue the brass ring of "the online world." The attitudes of those who remain in business school may not be markedly different. The Harvard Business School recently declared that its faculty could no longer take paid jobs as consultants, advisers or board members in business ventures started by students. One student who had founded several start-up ventures while at the school was quoted as saying: "If we lose [that kind of] access to the faculty, there's no reason for us to come here."
What is happening to our young, and why aren't we doing something about it? Whatever extraordinary opportunities for early riches the Internet Age may have created, only a minuscule percentage of today's teenagers and young adults will have any hope of attaining extraordinary material success. The vast majority will -- like the disappointed, disillusioned teenagers in "Hoop Dreams" -- have to redefine what happiness and satisfaction mean to them.
The good news is that, unlike young people who have only success on the basketball court as an avenue for escape from terrible economic and social conditions, middle-class kids have many other choices for reaching lives of relative comfort. It may not be the spectacular material success of their IPO dreams but, nevertheless, comfort by any reasonable standard. More important, they have the chance to achieve their success through careers that offer and mean much more than just the salaries associated with them.
Some people remark that the problem I've addressed here will disappear when the bubble of our extraordinary prosperity bursts. While a reversal of our economic fortunes would certainly deflate the dreams of many and, in that sense, teach them a useful lesson, a return to reality produced by cataclysm rather than choice is a much less valuable experience. What is required, instead -- before the bubble bursts -- is a public commitment to talk about what makes a job, a career or a life truly meaningful.
Rather than banter over dinner about the likely cost of Bill Gates' home, let's talk about the extraordinary satisfaction that comes from mastering a skill or body of information. Instead of marveling over the performance of the latest dot-com offering, let's reserve our awe for acts of selfless community and national service. And given a quiet moment with our kids, let's educate them -- while re-educating ourselves -- that a belief that great wealth equates automatically to great happiness is a telltale sign of ignorance.
Mark Steinberg is a litigation partner in a Los Angeles law firm.