I've recently been thinking about the attitude sometimes known here as the "Jack Man" syndrome, which is nothing to do with the actor, but is a typically Australian contraction of the phrase "I'm all right, Jack" (itself a polite version of "F*** you, Jack, I'm all right!").
This vivid expression of selfish complacency probably originated on the battlefield, along with similar phrases such as "every man for himself" and "let the devil take the hindmost". In each case, the speaker is unashamedly announcing that his own interests come first.
The subject came to mind during my weekly tutorial with 1st year medical students (all of them graduates in their 20's). Their course requires them to undertake 20-30 hours of voluntary community service each year, but this week I asked whether any of them would consider a volunteer position later on, as a qualified doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Operation Rainbow, for example. I was rather taken aback when they all responded with either a straight "No way", or "Only if it didn't interfere with my career", or "Only if I could get credit towards my specialist training". In many cases, even their predicted choice of specialty depended on its expected impact on their lives, and only one or two even mentioned what they felt they could offer to patients and society, or where they perceived the greatest need to be.
Of course they still have several years to refine these opinions, but I was surprised that in a group of self-motivated, well-educated, financially secure young people there were none whose social conscience outweighed purely personal considerations.
Further discussion revealed an almost dismissive attitude towards those health professionals who choose to work in volunteer organisations, or in under-funded, low-status positions such as rural and indigenous health care. The clear implication was that undertaking such roles indicates a lack of skill, ambition, self esteem, or good sense. This was so at odds with my own belief system (and personal experience) that I found it difficult to contain my astonishment, and I spent the whole journey home wondering if I had a singularly selfish tutorial group, or if they were simply typical of Generation Y.
Unfortunately it is not just these younger people who seem to have difficulty with the concept of altruism. Some people look for a self-serving (or at least self-interested) motive even when there is none, and I had included a recent example relating to the volunteer editor community of the Open Directory Project, but I will save that for another time.