Whatever Happened to Personal Responsibility?

Whatever Happened to Personal Responsibility?

Eilene Zimmerman was ripped apart for an article she wrote that was published last week in Salon.

She is a journalist who described her transition from total reliance on her husband for all things financial … to taking full control of her finances at the time of their divorce.  Called “I shouldn’t have left the finances to my husband,” I shared that article with you last week.

She was lambasted in the Comments section below her article for having “lived the good life” while her husband toiled away late into the night and handled the family money.  The critics misread the message.  The article was about how she had finally taken responsibility for herself after having spent far too many years in the haze of what she was taught was a woman’s role.

And that “lesson” knows no boundaries.  Wealthy, struggling, educated, functional illiterate, city slicker, country bumpkin … you’ll find women of every shape and size who are raised to believe that their role is a supportive one and that finances are a man’s domain.  Even today.

Parents are not intentionally creating dependent women.  But the effect is perpetuated, from generation to generation.  For example, just think about the fairy tales little girls hear as bedtime stories.  Little boys hear “The Little Engine That Could,” and little girls hear about how the Prince sent out his servants with the glass slipper and saved Cinderella from her life of toil and disdain.  And, oh yes, she was the pretty one.

By the way, in case you think Cinderella is a recent tale, its origins reach back to the 1st century BC, in the tale of the Greco-Egyptian girl Rhodopis.  A Chinese version involves magical fish; a Philippine one has her mother reincarnating in a crab.  Bits of the story appear in the Arabian Nights and Shakespeare’s King Lear. A Neapolitan soldier wrote a version in 1634 and the German Grimm Brothers in the 1800s.  But our version derives from Charles Perrault in 1697.  Not exactly yesterday.  So this stuff goes way back.

Back to unhealthy messages.  These childhood messages stay embedded in our subconscious, quietly affecting every one of our daily decisions, unless they are somehow addressed … and dispelled.  We can “unlearn” a belief by experiencing some event that contradicts it.  Or our parents can be enlightened enough to be sure we understand that those were fairy tales and that real life functions differently.

But the majority of little girls grow up with vestiges of Prince Charming in their memory banks.  And as long as he is there, they do not take full responsibility for themselves … because he could show up any day and save them from the drudgery of life.  Besides, in many cases he does show up … in the form of a husband.

Add to that dynamic the messages little boys are raised with:  you have to be the provider, you have to bring home the bacon, and you have to protect your wife and children.  In short, you will have a yoke around your neck for the rest of your life as you “clock in” every day to ensure their financial and physical security.

Can you see how this can be a formula for disaster?  Can you see the potential for enabling?  Can you see how disempowering this can be for the woman and how exhausting for the man?

And what gets lost in this dynamic?  The sense of personal responsibility.

The sense of personal responsibility is being eroded from all sides.  First, half the population is told it will be taken care of by handsome men in white riding britches and bright red jackets … on gorgeous white horses.  Then the other half is told it will support this fantasy by pretending to be that handsome guy on the horse.

Enter the rest of society’s messages, to both men and women:

•    everyone is entitled to a house that looks like it came off an HDTV show;
•    everyone deserves to dress like the latest celebrity on the front of the tabloids;
•    no reason to wait until you can afford something if you can buy a houseful of furniture and pay nothing for 24 months;
•    you can spend until your plastic card no longer acts like an ATM on steroids;
•    if you’re upside down on your mortgage because of the lousy real estate market, you can let it go into foreclosure and just walk away;
•    you can have as many children as you want, and not worry about whether you can afford to raise them, because you can always fall back on assistance to get you through the rough patches;
•    you can go to whatever college you want because the government will subsidize a student loan (even if you’ll be paying it off for 20 years and can’t write it off in bankruptcy);
•    no need to own a car when you can lease the latest model for small monthly payments;
•    they say Social Security won’t be there when you’re ready to retire, so no reason to bother saving anything at all (“it’s okay, we’ll all be in the same soup so someone will bail us out”); and
•    banks and corporations that get “too big to fail” are bailed out, so why not rack up tons of debt to become “too big to fail” as well?

And we wonder whatever happened to personal responsibility?

There is a quiet, but angry, mass of people who have lived within (and often below) their means, spent and invested wisely, saved diligently, and made calculated decisions.  These people have indeed lived their lives by taking personal responsibility.  And they have a right to be angry because the burden of the irresponsibility of all the others is seeping into their lives from every side.

Angry or not, what they realize is this:  without responsibility … from the personal level through the government level … the chances of resuscitating the American Dream are pretty slim.

It’s time to look at everything we take for granted and everything we feel entitled to.  It’s time to do CPR on personal responsibility.

Each of us has some aspect where we can improve.  How about we all start today?


Sharon O’Day is an expert in global finance and marketing with an MBA from the Wharton School. She has worked with governments, corporations, and individuals … yes, she was the secret ‘weapon,’ if you will, behind many individuals in high places. At age 53, she lost everything: her home, her business, everything. Since then, Sharon has interviewed women and done extensive research to understand how that could have happened, especially with her strong knowledge of numbers and finance.

The surprising answers will be shared in her upcoming book “Money After Menopause.” Today her focus is to show women how to reach financial security for the long term. She has developed a step-by-step plan to get past all the obstacles that keep women broke and scared … and from reaching the financial peace of mind they so deserve.

  • Thank you Sharon for sharing the personal responsibility of mankind. The mindset has to be changed in order to have a good and peaceful life. But for me, modern technology has changed the mindset and this has to be pondered by all family so that personal responsilibity can start going.

    Sharon, you always have a topic to open up people’s mind to think and change. Thank you.

  • Karen Brooks

    It is amazing to see the number of individuals who are in entitlement mindset. Personal responsibility was taught at home as well as by our educational system. Alas, this is one value for which we need to all take responsibility, and pass it along to the youth in the world today.

  • A good word… wise, Sharon…. we do need CPR, me included! Thank you for sounding the alarm and waking us up!

  • Oh Sharon, as a parenting coach I hear you! Somehow, parents have misinterpreted their role in their children’s lives…for the most part, this generation of parents have set kids up to forever be dependent! Thanks for your insights! Great Job!

  • Great article, Sharon. This spills over into all areas of live, too. I see it everyday as a fitness coach. People always looking for a pill or quick fix rather than taking responsibility for their health by cleaning up their diet and exercising. Thanks for the “wake-up”. Hopefully some folks out there will start taking responsibility for themselves, and start teaching the concept to their kids.

  • Marvelously written and truths in every line. SIREN is on. Every bullet points you have in this article speaks about our society here in the United States and also other parts of the world. There are no difference, East or West part of the world. I agree that personal responsibility has been eroded. I read a survey by one of the major news channel, what parents fear most for their children. I was shocked with the answer. Majority said, they fear their children will not be happy. Since when, we owe our children happiness? Afraid that we parents cannot provide them with what they ‘want’!

  • Beau Henderson

    LOVE this article and the common sense it promotes! People need to start reassessing their priorities and working towards eliminating the debt monster.

  • Kick ’em in the mouth Sharon! You’re absolutely right on all points and I’m very glad you brought the Prince Charming element in. All of the stories revolve around the happily ever after, not the work before and after.
    Finding or becoming Prince Charming is one thing. Understanding the level of effort and responsibility it takes to get there and stay there is entirely another.

  • Wendy

    Entitlement is an epidemic!!!

  • Good Good points! Your drew me in with the riding the white horse. I hear so many women make the statement “I have to ask my husband permission” it makes my eyes roll back in my head because you already know he is not going to “allow” her to do something if it conflicts with his “wants” – not all men of course. The mental status of I can have what I want with lack of work to go with it – is amazing and the mindset of many in the USA.

  • So true your words, Sharon. It is about personal responsibility and not pass the buck onto someone else.

  • Jeannette

    Sharon, I love your message and the way you tell it. Your stories make it “stick.”

  • Fay

    Thanks for your great article Sharon. Keeping track of our finances in our house is most definitely a joint responsibility with each of us knowing exactly where the dollars are at. I like it that way – it provides me with independence and security.

  • Rachelle

    “It’s time to look at everything we take for granted and everything we feel entitled to. It’s time to do CPR on personal responsibility.
    This is good Sharon! We must do CPR on personal responsibility.

  • Anonymous

    Sharon, I’m happy to report that my husband and I both share in managing our household expenses. I can’t stand being in the dark about our financial status. However, it’s still interesting how my DH’s self-image is so strongly wrapped around being able to be the provider, and I still find myself managing all things domestic and child-related. I’d love a more equal split overall!

  • Amen to that! Taking personal responsibility is key. Great article Sharon!

  • Oh Sharon this is awesome information. Again, I personally fall in between but felt so many pangs as I read along…the pangs were the points that have applied to my life’s journey. Good reminders though, we do need to wake up. It is time for each and everyone of us to take responsibility for our own decisions, actions and finances, too.

  • Victoria Gazeley

    You hit the nail on the head once again. As a single parent, these values kind of get dumped on their heads, which for my son is a good thing, I think. Even when his dad and I were together, I was ‘in charge’ of all the financial management. It would have been nice for my little guy to experience a more balanced situation, where both adults were equally responsible, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Maybe one day… In the meantime, I can show him what it looks like to work hard, be responsible with money, but still enjoy life. Thank you!

  • Sharon, For some reason thought I read this before and commented. Regardless reading something again is a great review. Can’t depend on others for the responsibility we need to take. Loved your CPR on personal responsibility. Surely can’t go back to the past, but do something now for tomorrow to be sweeter. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sharon, For some reason thought I read this before and commented. Regardless reading something again is a great review. Can’t depend on others for the responsibility we need to take. Loved your CPR on personal responsibility. Surely can’t go back to the past, but do something now for tomorrow to be sweeter. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kimberly

    Excellent post, Sharon.  And great article by Eilene.  Whether you call it “skin in the game” (couples sharing responsibility together for all things related to life), or personal responsibility, you’re right on.  We do ourselves (and our partners) a disservice when we abdicate financial responsibility.  Equating worth with pay (especially when women take on primarily responsibility at home) is an important belief for us to notice (men and women).  We, as women, must remain responsible for ourselves, even when we choose to partner with another. 

    • I love Eilene’s writings!  It’s interesting, Kimberly, that you chose the word “abdicate,” which (it seems) originally meant giving up a position with no possibility of resuming it.  The good news is that we CAN take back responsibility for our own well-being.  And some think it’s “anti-couple.”  It doesn’t have to destroy an existing relationship if both parties are interested in their own well-being as well as the well-being of the other.  If fact, that makes for far stronger relationships.