Election time and the Age of Entitlement

Historians, like journalists, feed on drama like lions on meat. This general election, in case anyone has forgotten, is the most important general election since…well, the last one, actually…

Drama infuses elections like most historical events, and, as every history buff knows, every century has its dramatic moniker. The 16th Century was the Age of Conquest/Discovery/Exploration (delete as appropriate), the 17th was the Age of Revolution (per Christopher Hill), the 18th the Age of Enlightenment, and the 19th the Age of Empire. The 20th Century hasn’t yet had a universally agreed nickname, but the revisionist historian Clive Ponting appeared to nail it in the title of his brilliant 1998 overview of the period: the age of Progress and Barbarism.

It’s probably too early to come up with a name for our present century, being as we are a mere seventeen years into its progress, but one possible name could be the Age of Entitlement. What’s more, there are two diametrically different ways of defining our age, and there’s a lot to be said about both perspectives.

Seven years ago the Daily Telegraph reported how a survey from the University of Hampshire had uncovered evidence for the familiar stereotypes of the so-called Millennial Generation (those born between 1982 and 1994), otherwise known as Generation Y. According to Professor Paul Harvey’s findings, members of this generation are more likely than their predecessors to consider themselves “entitled”, having been told from an early age that they are “special” and fortunate (a phenomenon brilliantly satirized in the song What Do You Do with a BA in English? in Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s hilarious musical Avenue Q). They are also less likely to be able to cope with criticism (however constructive), are likely to suffer higher levels of depression, and are likely to care more than their predecessors about high salaries and lots of leisure time (“two apparently incompatible goals”, in the view of the Telegraph’s reporter). To the mind of Prof Harvey, this sense of entitlement is ingrained in kids’ formative years:

It stems from the self-esteem movement, telling kids, “You’re great, you’re special”…Even if they fail miserably at a job, they still think they’re great at it.

The Millennial generation are different from the rest of us, for sure. There are, for example, more opportunities for foreign travel, with various budget airlines competing for a still-eager market for cheap flights. Our children have more opportunities for personal distraction than I did when I was a kid: the falling price of televisions, for example, mean there are more households with a TV in each bedroom, rather than just the living room, and of course there’s the explosion in mobile-phone ownership and the associated improvement in communications technology. Most significantly, of course, the Millennials are the first generation to have had access to the internet (and thereafter, social media) since their primary-school years.

In terms of being more chippy when it comes to handling criticism, this finding definitely has legs: this generation also tend to make more grammatical or spelling mistakes than before – you know the ones, where they frequently mistake words like there, their, and they’re, and your and you’re – thanks to a slew of teachers who were clearly far too indulging of them (don’t get me wrong, though: I’m not trying to suggest teachers aren’t also overworked and under-supported). The American comedian Alex Edelman also highlit this issue in a recent Radio 4 stand-up show, in which he recalled how his friend Rachel, a new mother, was becoming sensitive about bringing her son up:

Rachel goes, “Sorry, we’re just a little uptight, because people are judging us for how we’re raising Jameson.” I did not know what that meant, because there’s only one way to raise a baby, right? You have to do it normally: you can’t do it, like, free-range – wolves get in! – so I said “What do you mean by that?” and she said “Well, we’re not going to vaccinate him until we know more.”

I said “First of all, take your diseased baby back!” Public trust among people who can’t remember polio, measles and mumps, and when these diseases were real problems – it’s completely eroded. People have started, because of the internet, thinking that, maybe you shouldn’t be vaccinating your kids just yet – and that’s what she told me. She said “Well, we’ve read that the science isn’t conclusive,” and I said “It is! You have to vaccinate your baby!” She said “I don’t have to do anything,” and I was like, “You need to vaccinate your baby!” She said “Well, it’s my opinion that we don’t have to, and you can’t judge me for my opinion,” and I was like, “THAT’S HOW WE JUDGE PEOPLE! Opinions and action! It used to be skin colour, until someone Had A Dream!”

There’s another aspect of this generation: not only have they grown up with the internet since childhood, but they have also proved to be more inclined than earlier generations to accept whatever is on it wholesale.

In some ways, though, the criticism of this Age of Entitlement as having created a generation of feedback-allergic braggarts isn’t entirely fair. The Financial Times commentator (and, for better or worse, soon-to-be teacher) Lucy Kellaway gave a talk on the BBC nine years ago about this trend, critiquing the singer Christina Aguilera, in particular, for her 2003 hit I Am Beautiful, No Matter What They Say:

The self-esteem movement has a lot to answer for by dictating that unless we learn to love ourselves we won’t be able to love others, which strikes me as an extraordinary hypothesis. Where is the proof?

Ms Kellaway was, however, being unfair on Christina: the song is actually meant as an anti-bullying anthem and a positive celebration of self-esteem (preferable, after all, to self-loathing) – a theme developed further by the Sugababes in their 2005 song Ugly. Maybe Lucy needs to spend more time planning her lessons…

Chantelle Houghton (born 1983), who won Celebrity Big Brother 2006 after being passed off by the producers as a pop star

While we’re on the subject of pop role models, here’s another aspect of Millennials that’s worth looking at: they’re also the generation that grew up with reality TV, the explosion of glossies, and the tabloidization of news. This has also created an equally damaging trend of teenagers aspiring for fame for its own sake – even (or especially) if it’s not backed up with any noticeable talent. It’s certainly curious how the word “celebrity” was only an adjective before the 1990s – only from then did it start to be used as a noun, as the comedian Mark Steel notes in his second volume of autobiography What’s Going On:

You could be the world’s leading physicist and it would count for nothing, unless you were a CELEBRITY physicist, popping up on Comic Relief and doing a waltz with Natasha Kaplinsky dressed as a black hole. Mostly a celebrity is someone whose job is to be famous; to read off an autocue or get photographed on a beach. Every poll taken among teenagers reveals that one of their most popular ambitions is to be famous. Not to be a famous footballer or singer but just famous. Until recently the notion of fame not attached to a reason for that fame would have made no sense. It would have been like saying, ‘Yesterday I saw a beautiful.’

Before I get accused of swallowing Prof Harvey’s thesis wholesale, there is, as I said at the beginning of this piece, another side to the Age of Entitlement: that of a feeling that one’s success and wealth, however it came about, entitles you to behave like a spoiled brat, and makes you think you deserve more of what society has to offer than anyone else, regardless of their circumstances.

As if as a counterpoint to the Telegraph article, the Guardian offered its own take on the Entitlement phenomenon with a 2014 article about another study, conducted by the American psychologist Paul Piff. In his findings Dr Piff uncovered evidence that the richer you are, the likelier you are to cut off other drivers on the road, to exploit others, to cheat, to fail to give way at pedestrian crossings, and to consider just about any recipient of state benefits (even if they have disabilities) as a “scrounger”. Dr Piff put it thus:

The more severe inequality becomes, the more entitled people may feel and less likely to share resources they become. The wealthier segments of society become then, the more vulnerable communities may be to selfish tendencies and the less charity the least among us can expect.

There’s this idea that the more you have, the less entitled and more grateful you feel; and the less you have, the more you feel you deserve. That’s not what we find…This seems to be the opposite of noblesse oblige…

While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything, the rich are way more likely to prioritise their own self-interests above the interests of other people. They are more likely to exhibit characteristics we would stereotypically associated with, say, a**holes.

With these phenomena understood and recognizable, this offers the other side of the Entitlement debate: while on the one hand we have the problem of a generation of (allegedly) criticism-phobic 20- and 30-somethings who spend too much time dreaming of becoming famous, on the other hand we also have the problem of rich types who think philanthropy is an exotic type of pasta. Lest we forget, the Millennials are also the first generation who are less likely than their predecessors to be able to afford their own home – a very worrying legacy of decades of governments failing both to invest properly in housing, and to do anything about the twin monsters of growing income inequality and falling living standards. It’s a considerably less secure age we live in, too: my dear late Dad was always quick to empathise with me after the countless job interviews I failed, commenting how he and Mum were lucky enough to be assured of a job for life – an entity that now exists only in the House of Lords (and the House of Windsor, of course…)…

Moreover, it doesn’t half grate hearing Eton- and Oxbridge-educated politicians who have never been rejected for a job in their lives lecturing the rest of us on entitlement, which the comic Marcus Brigstocke hilariously skewered a few years ago:

When I heard this inherited multi-millionaire ex-Etonian [David Cameron] talking about a culture of entitlement, well, I’m sorry, but my irony-meter went straight into the red and exploded in a gale of bitter laughter… I was furious, because I’d only just had an irony-meter installed after Rebekah Brooks had complained about how she’d been unfairly reported by the British press!

(And while I’m on rant mode, I have to say it annoys me no end how some English politicians continue to deny the influence and importance of class and class connections in getting ahead in British – or possibly just English – society. There might have been a time when a genuine meritocracy was possible, but rates of social mobility in the UK have declined alarmingly since the ’70s and ’80s – possibly because of the 1965 experiment in comprehensive education; or possibly because of chronic underfunding of our schools; you decide… At any rate, however hard most of us comp-educated kids work, we are simply less likely than the poshos to cut it in boards for the top jobs. Having the right connections, having a stockbroker for a father, being part of an old-boys’ network – they all make a hell of a difference when it comes to rising to the top. And yet there are some who continue to insist, in the face of study after study, that hard work is all that’s needed to arrive at your destination. Remember, revealingly, how the Conservatives used as their 2009 Conference “anthem” Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 song You Can Get It If You Really Want…much to the surprise of Mr Cliff himself…)?

So there we have it: the two sides of the Age of Entitlement: the Rock of a 20- and 30-something generation of (so we are told) full-of-themselves young adults who all too often aspire to go on television, and the Hard Place of an arrogant class of increasingly rich, powerful people who consider their life’s work as already done, who continue to whinge about taxes, and who don’t feel any wider social obligations other than to look down on everyone below and giggle. Wherever you place your “X” in the polling booth tomorrow, it’s certainly something else worth thinking about, while we continue to look for answers to other problems like terrorism, climate change, and the still-unresolved Return to Stormont…

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering: I was born in ’77, and have always felt more meek than entitled…)

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.