Say ‘No’ to the Status Quo

September 26, 2014 ( - “O Captain! My Captain,” words about leadership, about standing up for what is right, about America.

First written by Walt Whitman in1865, they’ve echoed in the halls of literature for some 150 years. More specifically, they title a poem and stand tall as a testament to a country that chose to do what was right in the face of immense challenge. Lincoln was Whitman’s captain, America his ship, a “fateful trip” through the Civil War the journey, and the abolition of slavery our “prize.”

Fast forward to 1989, June to be exact, and to a scene in a movie—Dead Poets Society. Students are sitting anxiously in an English classroom, as the headmaster is rigidly feeding them poetry. In walks the banished John Keating (played by the late Robin Williams) returning to his classroom one last time to collect his belongings. Mr. Keating quietly retrieves his things as the headmaster instructs his former class. The boys are uncomfortable, they’re aching to reach out to their former teacher, their mentor, their captain, but fear the headmaster’s wrath. As Mr. Keating gathers his things and walks for the door, one student defiantly stands on his desk and declares, in a sign of solidarity, “O Captain! My Captain!”  One by one, boys begin to stand and the movement tips, despite the headmaster’s fury. And in the end, it is easier to stand than to stay seated.

I often use this vignette to illustrate two points. The first is how social movements tip and gain momentum. And the second is the value of challenging the status quo. The latter is my interest today.

If you were to ask any one of us about our innovative spirit, our ability to diverge from the masses, and to create ideas that are truly different, we would likely declare our uniqueness. But we’re not as unique as we think. We humans tend to live in a collective consciousness, one where we think very much alike and have trouble breaking from convention. This is not opinion, nor is it a criticism, it is fact. That’s why terms like “tipping point” exist, and why authors like Malcolm Gladwell can make millions of dollars writing books about how concepts tip in a complex society. It’s also the reason we have to break with conventional thinking in order to make more than measured progress when trying to change savings behavior in America.

So what’s the point? The point is that even though we’re not very good at challenging the status quo (most often we don’t even realize it is the status quo), we must take that step to initiate real change. This is why “challenging the status quo” is one of Transamerica’s retirement plan design principles and something we contemplated at our second annual Retirement Symposium earlier this year. We believe it’s critical to reshaping saving and spending behavior.

Reflect for a moment on our innovation as a retirement savings industry. If we’re being honest, much of it has actually been quite linear and measured. Now cast your mind back to the advent of target-date funds and auto-enrollment. While neither was well received at inception, both were a departure from convention. In fact, they were different enough that apprehension in HR departments about enraged participants storming the door as money was deducted from their paychecks was common. Which, of course never happened; many were grateful that someone nudged them to save and found an appropriate place to put their hard-earned dollars. I would argue that these are great examples of innovation that was non-linear, challenged the status quo, and had a real impact on saving behavior.

Now don’t get me wrong, innovation doesn’t need to be non-linear in order to move the needle, it just has to move the needle. And the common thread for doing so is somebody taking a stand; a stand for auto enrollment at 6%, a stand for optimizing outcomes, or simply taking a stand for having a plan to begin with, but in some way taking a stand and challenging the status quo.

And the bottom line here is that the status quo doesn’t challenge itself. That’s our job!


Stig Nybo is president of U.S. Retirement Strategy at Transamerica Retirement Solutions.   

NOTE: This feature is to provide general information only, does not constitute legal advice, and cannot be used or substituted for legal or tax advice. Any opinions of the author(s) do not necessarily reflect the stance of Asset International or its affiliates.