The entitlement debate among Millennials and the world we made

Attention conservation notice: We’re all entitled, and that’s not a bad thing, but the US economic structure has changed, and that is a bad thing.

I’ve been reading the material floating around about entitlement and Gen Y with a great deal of interest, and these are my students. The firecracker that set off the wars was this piece from Huffington Post . It’s thesis is that Gen Y kids were raised with high expectations during a time when their parents were extremely optimistic. They internalized that optimism and ambition, and felt empowered to accomplish the things they envisioned for themselves.

For some reason, this is interpreted as a bad thing. Having big hopes and dreams? Pshaw. Bad you. (Really?)

Somehow, this has been circulated as “Gen Y is entitled its members think they are special. They are not special, and it’s making them unhappy.” with lots of anger directed at the writer and people who note that entitlement.

Wait a minute. The point of all this student-centered pedagogy was precisely all this: combined with self-esteem parenting, pomo-poco pedagogy was to nurture along young people who thought a lot of their rights and their potential. There were subsidiary benefits of all this entitlement. I’ve read a lot of this pedagogical material: the point was that we were supposedly raising people who weren’t going to put up with “the system.” They were going to believe they deserved good treatment, good pay, and social inclusion, and they weren’t going to let pig-dog pointy-headed bosses crush them, nor the state, nor any of the rest. That’s good, right? It was supposed to be emancipatory. Unfortunately, it was also fantasy because it placed the emphasis for changing the system on the people least likely to wield power as they tried to enter that system. Maybe someday, when they are older and are running agencies and universities and the county, but they aren’t really in a position to do it now. Just like we weren’t. Who is? And that’s part of the unrealistic expectation that got put on a large number of young people taught this way.

But believing you might do great things? That strikes me as…wonderful. There may be a gap between expectations and reality, and that gap sucks, but it hardly speaks to anything that strikes me as shameful. The idea that ‘they don’t want to work for it’ is nonsense, and I don’t know who is saying that. The number of hours worked is going up over time, not down, as they enter the workforce. And besides: who actually wants to work for anything past a certain level? Yeah, we have lots of narratives about how “I worked for this and that” and “it was all so much more gratifying than having it handed to you” and while that may be true, it’s not for everything all the time. Work is often a grind. See Bernard Shaw’s commentary on idleness and the English aristocracy: quite ready to condemn the working class for failing to work sufficiently hard while taking tea, playing tennis, and doing jack-diddly-do that resembles actual real work themselves. So we’d all rather not do the unpleasant parts of work, like putting with bosses, but we do it because we want what work brings, and there is no evidence that this generation of youth is any less inclined to make work-leisure trades than prior generations, all of whom has had the same specious complaint leveled at them when they were in our 20s, too, and began noticing that this scrambling to make a living thing bites it.

I didn’t read that piece as scolding entitlement, but there are plenty of others who have written screeds about how entitled this generation is, so I can understand why people are tired of hearing it. However, this particular piece brought out a response from this writer, who is understandably furious at his fears for his son: Fuck You: I’m Gen Y and I don’t feel special or entitled. Just Poor.” According to most breakdowns of these Generational things (which I am not a big believer in, but they exist), he’s a member of Gen X, not Gen Y, but he is close enough to Gen Y to see from both vantage points. He’s not that much younger than me (8 years), and thus, he shouldn’t dismiss the Gen X’s economic lives. Far from being being super-successful, members of Gen X entered the workforce when Baby Boomers were *not* retiring and wouldn’t be for decades yet so that jobs were scarce, particularly the upper management jobs that paid well, and these folks have had virtually no increases in real income during their entire tenure in the workforce. Yes, they’ve had jobs, but those jobs have paid relatively less over time. Now doesn’t that sound fun?

This quote strikes me as really telling:

But there’s nothing for us to suck up, really. As a rule, our parents did end up much more dedicated to their careers than we have. But as a rule, they were laid off less. They didn’t intern or work as independent contractors. They got full medical. They were occasionally permitted to adopt magical unicorn-like money-granting creatures called “pensions.”

His point is that if you pay people decently, they will of course spend more time at work and give more of their time to it. You can’t expect people to want to work for you if you aren’t compensating them well enough for it to be worth sacrificing their time.

This comment strikes me as particularly telling:

So take your “revise your expectations! check your ego!” Horatio Alger bullshit, and stuff it. While you’re at it, stuff this economy. Not this GDP, not this unemployment level: this economy, this financial system that establishes complete social and political control over us, that conditions us to believe that we don’t deserve basic shelter and clothing and food and education and existence-sustaining medical care unless we throw our lives into vassalage and hope, pray, that the lords don’t fuck with our retirements or our coverages. (Maybe if we’re extra productive, someday they’ll do a 4o1K match again, like our ancestors used to talk about!)

But that’s exactly where the social contract has eroded. Social welfare isn’t an entitlement. That went away. Many of us oldsters mourn it. But its assertion is a clear sign of entitlement, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that entitlement itself has become a bad word in a social and economic order of tooth and claw that many of us never wanted.

Meanwhile, this.

2 thoughts on “The entitlement debate among Millennials and the world we made

  1. I’m in the same situation as the author of “FY: I’m Gen Y and …”

    There’s a visceral difference that may be idiosyncratic for me; I got out of a bachelors from UC Berkeley completely self-financed through my own full time work – no student loans. Fast forward to 2010 : I got a full tuition scholarship for my tuition for my masters program but I still ended up in 5-figure debt just to survive at a base level of social interaction with my cohort. We’re not talking Harvard-esque secret wealth here, we’re talking happy hours. But now, deep into my PhD, I have debt that I *literally* cannot discharge without death or disability-(because there’s a difference between this and “normal” disability)-inducing dismemberment.

    That’s at nearly 7% APY because apparently intellectual capital is 7.1% APY less valuable than financial capital at the federal level.

    And, of course, now I pay 58% of my stipend towards rent irrespective of other fixed costs. So I’ve lived both lives. I financed undergrad and the high-risk decision I made immediately thereafter through the (in hindsight) ridiculous irrational exuberance that was 01/01/2004-05/15/2000. And now I’ve sold a kidney and change in order to do what, really, I wanted to and should have done since I got a BA. There’s no way I can escape that trade, sort of making literal my allegory. I like my kidneys. So where do the Gen X-wing millennials go from here?

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