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Athletes' Morale, Brain Drain, And Kiwi Attitudes

Guest Opinion: Alan Webster, Director of the NZ Study of Values

Two threats to national self-confidence coincided, merged, coalesced and multiplied themselves in the aftermath of the Sydney Olympics. They were, of course, the sad performance of our athletes and the alleged increase in the 'brain drain'. As one of those who went overseas while young enough and got six years of degrees and experience and then came back to a good job, I can't very well complain about people taking leave and risking never returning.

But a dark doubt has crept into our conversation: we are not the brash, confident, market-led people we were 10 years ago. Perhaps attitudes have changed.

By good fortune, I have at my hand all of the New Zealand data and that of 50-odd other nations on the latest World Values Survey. What would be wrong, I asked myself, with looking at how matters of morale relevant to high-level achievement compare, New Zealand against others?

To start at the wrong end, let's look at whether we're just such nice people that that's possibly the reason we don't have the 'instinct for the jugular' that some more primitive societies like Australia and the USA clearly have. Take unselfishness, for instance. If we really believe, as some have alleged, that we ought to bring up our children to seek each other's wellbeing rather than compete, then unselfishness will be deeper in our bones. Well, it turned out that, in the Values Study data, the wretched Aussies and the Americans, with all their cockiness, are just as likely as Kiwis to believe that children should be brought up to be unselfish.

But then, some more positive virtues surely would show us to be of a more advanced civilization! How about tolerance and respect for others? Yup, we're above the average of 14 other nations: NZ, 78% agreeing with this value for children, but the others averaging 65%. We're also well up on good manners (77% against the average of 69%); also imagination (NZ 28%, Australia 27%, USA 24%, Sweden 24%, South Africa 23%, Russia 21%.

Some have said these sorts of things are the key problem - we're bringing the kids up too soft. And admittedly, it is difficult to see how being polite, considerate, respectful and imaginative will help you grab that 0.2 seconds that gets the gold. Likewise, such weak-minded attitudes as that in a relationship, it's more important to understand the other person's point of view than to come out with your own. Yet here, NZ led the field again - 77% of us think like that: more than Australia at 68%, USA 70%, Japan 70%, Lithuania 71%. Pity about civilization - it doesn't seem to help when your back's against the wall.

Some have suggested that there isn't enough hunger to win. If that requires a deep sense of dissatisfaction, the data doesn’t support the argument. Whilst NZ shows high levels of life-satisfaction and a sense of freedom, as well as a desire for a job where you can show initiative, so also do countries like Australia, Britain, Sweden, and the USA. Even the feeling of pressure to conform, expressed in a preference for more order in the nation, discloses no significant differences between NZ and others.

In fact, the opposite of conformity may well be one of the things that sets NZers apart, and even reflects on both training discipline and ability to stick at the job in New Zealand. This is suggested in our answers to the question whether, on the job, you should obey orders without question. New Zealand respondents were far less likely, at 34%, to agree than the Americans at 64%, Australia 48%, South Africa at 39% and Sweden at 40%. To put it the other way round, New Zealanders were much more likely to say that obedience to commands on the job "all depends" than all the others: NZ 40%, Australia 10%, China 15%, Sweden 11%, USA 2%.

These differences would not suggest the softness that the John Walkers of the world (with due respect to John) allege to have struck our athletes and by implication our youth who go where the money is easier. There is an individuality and a resistance to conformity, or a dislike of authority that whatever its origins, lends itself to individual brilliance but sometimes not so great team discipline. Not softness. Translated into the brain drain, this would see New Zealanders dashing into all kinds of opportunities with a supreme confidnce that gets them (us) opportunities often beyond the imagination of less impetuous people. Certainly when this is tested with the question whether future society should contain more respect for authority, New Zealand at 50% sat right on the fence, while others were much more cautious: Australians 72%, Britain 78%, South Africa 79%, Spain 70%, USA 77%. So it could be that it's our attitude to authority and order more than a softening of character that finds us inconsistent in the test and prepared to give away the hard patient grind of the home job for the faster individual pay-off in London.

These characteristics not only predict the lightning display of the lone athletic performer, albeit with occasional lapses of discipline, but also the innovation and daring that can forge a path in the knowledge society. There is an emotional cost to such individualistic daring. Cut off at an early age from many of the social and personal comforts of home and family, the performer, whether on the athletic field or in the world marketplace, has to find compensations. Affectional life may suffer; families may feel the strain; isolated achievement may harden the edges of feeling and make for less lasting personal happiness. It may be the nostalgia for these very Kiwi things that undermines the raw grasp for athletic performance or that leads most young Kiwis overseas to say they will be back - or they wish deep in their hearts that we would make it possible for them to come back to this best of all countries.


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