"Whether religion is failing to provide answers or science is unsettling the doctrine, surveys report about two out of three Americans believe the nation is morally misguided. The traditional canon of ethics—hard work, marriage and family, steady progress to well defined goals—is eroding. Polls suggest we are increasingly suspicious of others, and, except for those who came of age soon after World War II, each succeeding generation has reported a greater mistrust of human nature. Periodic polls by U.S. News & World Report and others find that about eight in ten Americans consider incivility a serious problem that is getting worse, confirming a growing sense of cultural coarseness, an increase in cheating and rudeness.

As the baby boomer generation arrived at middle age, a young aide to President Bill Clinton described it as "the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in history." Surveys report the boomers' kids are arriving at college, record numbers of them the product of divorce and enveloped by apathy, particularly when it comes to political and social issues. Membership in civic organizations has eroded, while the clergy, the courts, most government agencies, and many other institutions are increasingly looked upon with suspicion.

Despite sustained prosperity, Americans say they are overworked and underhappy. According to U.S. Department of Labor data and international reports, Americans were toiling seventy hours more a year than even the hard-working Japanese, seven weeks longer in just the last decade, and a remarkable nine weeks more than the average European. "Stressed out" is now the norm.

At any one time, in what is sometimes referred to as an epidemic, a fifth of Americans report being depressed, lonely, or upset, most often resulting from relationship problems and marital strains. It is estimated that as many as thirty million Americans take an antidepressant in any given year. Although definitions of mental illness can be exceptionally broad, one study conducted by the University of Michigan reported that fully one in four Americans met the criteria for having a mental disorder in 2004. More than a third of Americans will experience some form of sexual dysfunction, and a quarter of the nation's population admits to having approached the edge of mental breakdown at least once. Most doctor visits now involve stress-related complaints, while big segments of the American public endure acute anxiety, experience panic attacks, or suffer from major phobias. More than twenty-six million people live alone.

The overall shift to detached, high-tech urban lifestyles has cut us off from the rhythms of nature, distanced us from the wisdom of instinct and the innate sense of our own bodies. We have relinquished the moral anchor of traditional religion, and in an anonymous cityscape of vertical caves, we have become unhooked from our kin and clan as well. Many Americans feel like strangers in the crowded Global City, floating digits in cyberspace. Accountable to no one, morality becomes whatever you can get away with. We drift like ethical flotsam on a sea of moral relativity. Finally, ego alone triumphs.

A mantra of our time, "be all that you can be," has come to mean, essentially, "I gotta be me." Many of us, especially youngsters, find ourselves navigating through permissive value systems that spurn responsibility in favor of personal fulfillment. We don't think we owe much of anything to anybody; too often we think we're entitled. In a free-agent economy, we change jobs and neighborhoods without a second thought. In a moral funk, unable to draw deeper meaning into our lives and disconnected from family, we have regressed to a culture of selfishness, to the cult of the individual."