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…)

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  • Ozzy

    Generalising nonsense

  • ted hagan

    On the contrary, I found it interesting, perceptive, balanced and relevant, especially its observations on the English class system and how resilient it is.

  • hgreen

    Hokum and man down the pub insights from start to finish. It would appear what hasn’t changed is older generations slagging off those coming behind. Nasty stuff.

  • Dan Payne

    OK, I did make it clear in the article (though possibly not clear enough) that I don’t agree with the first part of the thesis entirely – plus, I was REPORTING what has been said about Entitlement in different publications. Finally, to cite an oft-used cliche, many of my best pals are Millennials (!). That’s all. Carry On and Keep Calm. 😉

  • Patrick Mac

    Climate Change, once known as Global Warming – the biggest hoax of all time.

  • hgreen

    What’s Harvard like this time of year?

  • whatif1984true

    Half truths is the absolute most I would allow for this type of opinion piece.

  • Patrick Mac

    Your meaning is what exactly.

  • Pang

    I think previous generations also dreamt of the short cut of fame. We also dreamt of owning a home. Owning a home was hard but possible, so most of us gave up on the fairy tales & saved for a mortgage. Millennials are finding the dream of a home also impossible so stick with the bigger dream.
    We need to make home ownership & other dreams possible again, not easy,but possible.

  • doopa

    Beyond you?

  • Patrick Mac

    Your meaning is what exactly.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Excellent article Dan and thanks for posting. You have reminded me of the tantrums thrown by the talentless on tv talent shows either during or immediately after their audition which demonstrates exactly what you describe: the inability to take, or unfamiliarity with taking, criticism, however constructive.
    In a NI context, I recall a time when NI had some sense of moral right and wrong that to some degree outweighed our tribal tendencies but I notice (and this is one reason why I access this forum) a much greater tendency to ‘facultativeneness’, or at least inconsistent moral relativity, where the tribe’s perceived interests must be defended by the tribal adherent at all costs in all circumstances including the mildest of criticism. Both the DUP’s and SF’s ascendancy stand testament to this recent trend. Parity of esteem, which was once necessary, has become a war of conflicting entitlements – the oft cited zero sum game. Whataboutery deflects attention away from criticism of some of the tribe’s members and bounces it back on to themmuns. While ensnaring oneself in identity issues is not the theme of your piece, there is a spoilt brattishness in the statements of the aligned yet not fully involved in defending one’s tribal virtues as evidenced on The Nolan Show, Talkback and Slugger. It’s a general cacophony of blatant cognitive dissonance to render the tribe unassailable.
    I recall a university lecturer in England responding to my complaints about the self centred insouciance of my fellow students: “Well it’s Thatcher’s generation isn’t it?Very quiescent yet strangely very me first” It was the first time that I had been made aware of the impact the Tsarina had made on the psyche of the nation. Many commentators noticed Blair taking this delusional self interest and harnessing it too during his tenure and I felt it was both palpable and observable. The GFA was predicated on this philosophy of vague non committal: everyone can feel vindicated despite no outright victory or defeat and despite no sense of communal responsibility: in other words no-one had to compromise for the common good.

  • Alastair Rae

    Good thought-piece. Makes this old git baby boomer feel quite smug.

  • cj

    Troll!

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Yes. The English class system is one of the few things in the UK which actually works very well and as it is designed to do (if you are one of the share-owning classes).

  • murdockp

    I enjoyed this.

    Every generation of parents probably says the same since we crawled out of caves.

    I imagine when man (or woman) invented fire and started cooking food, parents would be telling their kids how lucky they have it compared to them or when man (or woman) invented the wheel, how lucky kids of today are with the wheel doing all the work with parents telling their kids back in their youth they had to carry stuff.

    I always liked the saying that Tony Blair was the future once.

    Time keeps on moving and we keep getting older.

  • murdockp

    No better example of a sense of entitlement than sinn fein harping on about ‘tory cuts’

    If Sinn Fein were a truly republican party, they would we asking us to live off the revenues generated by the state, but no, a sense of entitlement, free DLA cars and badges for all, public sector job anyone?

  • Oggins

    Why o why do you bring our crappy local politics and whataboutery into article?

  • Oggins

    Really enjoyable read Dan thank you.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Your “evidence”?

  • Patrick Mac

    All around you Seaan, all around you. Birds chirping, rivers flowing, seas teaming with fish (and food), lush greenery, trees everywhere, managed forestry (by sensible, adult type people), oil and gas flowing, shelves stacked floor to ceiling with stock (doesn’t Venezuela look fun), clean running drinking water, electricity 24/7, internet/telephony 24/7, international aviation, smooth roads to drive on, footpaths to walk on, education systems, banking systems, insurance systems, free libraries, law and order, etc, etc, etc.

    The claims made by the warmists have not materialised. Its all nonsense Seaan, so calm yourself down. What justification the OP had in shoe-horning GW/CC into a piece about entitlement mentality (see final paragraph), I honestly have no clue.

    Really, you should learn to appreciate what has been done for you in the world, and in life. But then again, liberals, leftists and their type are NEVER satisfied, right ?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed, Patrick mac, all around us!!! Researching one of my own books required me to look at the seventeenth century mini “ice age”, and at diaries for certain years in that century. In order to assess just how extreme the climate described in the diaries was comparatively, I had to look at climate fluctuations over the last few centuries. While the recent climate shift may not have been quite as extreme as some may at one point have predicted, it is, in terms of the regular climate fluctuations, genuinely (and frighteningly) extreme. All the things you list are quite contingent, and far more fragile than you appear to even begin to understand. Your argument also relies on the personal experience logical fallacy, rather than on serious evidence. Of course such things may be apparent to you, but they do not in any sense prove that things are well. Try telling the species racing to extinction through a combination of human greed and climate change that they are flourishing. “The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.” (World Wild Life Fund website). National Geographic tells us that world deforestation is continuing on a massive scale. These are just to statistically supported refutations of what you are suggesting your observations prove. With ninety-seven percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agreeing on all of the broad Climate change issues, it takes a lot of “stiff neck” to support the flakey three remaining percent.

    It’s not a matter of “never satisfied” but of recognising that being self-satisfied is simply not a strategy in the face of impending disaster, and that the pseudo-science of the denial machine is always supported by groups with a short sighted wish-fulfilment agenda and funded by the needs of economic vested interests, such as the oil lobbyists in the US. I suppose even Hitler and Goebbels could pretend that either things weren’t all that bad, or, in the last wars’ final months, that something would show up to save them. Save us all from those people who have solid authoritative evidence available to them and refuse to recognise it because they would have to challenge the ideologies they subscribe to. The are problem for the same people is that while you are still dancing without a care on the Titanic’s tilting dance floor, we’re all stuck there on the ship along with you.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    You’re hilarious! I avoid typing LOL but boy did you make me bellow.

  • Patrick Mac

    Scare tactics, the same as those pushed by warmists for multiple decades and still, life goes on. In a hundred years from now, warmists will have graduated to some other pseudo-cause, in order to ‘smash capitalism’ and still, life will continue.

    You mention three percent of climate scientists deny there is climate change. The figure is much greater, and rising sharply, however the liberal controlled MSM froze out deniers many, many years ago. This is the reason why people believe the majority of scientists think there is impending doom. Take David Bellamy for example, who stated his skepticism and was barely seen on a TV screen for decades.

    “solid authoritative evidence” – are you referring to the type which a certain university in the east of England manipulated, causing a media storm. This was about five or six years back. There’s a lot of people raking in massive amounts of £$£$£$£ from the warming scam Seaan. I wonder if you’re one of them. All liars get found out eventually you should know.

    “tilting dance floor” – what pitiful drama. As I’ve advised, calm yourself down, its all nonsense. Yes?, No?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Bless you Pat Mac, “Scare tactics”…97 % is consensus, not scare tactics.

    I’m always surprised at how people seem to wish to believe entirely insupportable nonsense in the afce of real scientific evidence. The Royal family are Lizards, Donald Trump is a politician, sort of thing. Of course people are being paid money to study these things, but nothing near what vested interests in the states are paying PR compalnies to persuade you that no matter how sound their evidence for climate change, it simply is not true.

  • Patrick Mac

    Do the sensible thing and acknowledge the sounds of change ringing all around you, at the current time.

    The adults are back in charge of things, and the liars are going to be exposed, not only those in the GW/CC scam, but ALL scams.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    For some of us with the “deep memory” of an historical discipline, what you are saying is chillingly like the Triumphalism of National Socialism after the little Austrian corporal was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Very same tone, same rejection of rationality and evidence. Change is not always a positive thing, and your argument here is yet another logical fallacy.

    Do the sums, 97%, 3%. It’s not hard. Then look at the actual science, not at the cheap soundbites and slogans of the neo-cons who are trying to con you good and proper.

  • PV Nevin

    Is this issue of entitlement not that a more selfish generation has been created per se: but that the self centred types are given carte blanche by official opinion to misbehave all they like?

    The ruling class have moved ever increasingly rightward, since the 70s. Their system, capitalusm, is in terminal decline. What else have they to offer but reaction in response to the threat to their very survival?

    A moral compass set to direct society towards a (vastly) Bette world would only raise the question for everyone – why do we continue with this moribund capitalist economy, dividing the world into separate states?

    So instead we are told day after day that the mean streets and the backwardness is normal and eternal. Only thing to do is get behind your own gang. You can’t change the world.

    But…. we can.