Like many on this eve of a new year, I am stunned at the frenetic pace of time’s passing, especially as I say goodbye to the year in which I turned 60. Reflecting from this vantage point on the breathtaking changes in the world order, I decided to respond to a question that was posed to me very recently by a reader:
“Why do kids these days feel they have such a right of entitlement?”
As it turns out I’ve spent no small amount of time thinking about generational differences and what they mean for the future of our world (read: the Western industrialized societies with which I am most familiar, though I suspect that cultural differences are shrinking as the world homogenizes).
So here is my opinion on younger-generation entitlement in a nutshell: I think the idea that the current younger generation feels more entitled/ungrateful/disrespectful is a myth. I believe the idea is an urban legend born of the same inevitable generation gap that has always existed between parents and their teen children, only now being fueled by the same forces that are driving generational differences in the first place: globalization, electronic communication, and competition for media market share.
“But wait!” I hear you argue. “I’ve been around these kids – at home, in schools, out shopping – and they are a pain in the butt. They are ill-mannered, don’t know how to dress properly, have no sense of propriety, and they’re totally undisciplined! They have no guilt and no shame!” Sound familiar?
I discovered quite some years ago that you know you’re aging the first time you put your hands on your hips and say, in the same exasperated voice your mom or dad did, “These kids these days!”
And that’s exactly it. My parents – and I’ll bet yours – definitely thought we were disrespectful, undisciplined, and ungrateful. In truth, they had a point. I didn’t believe in their version of the “American dream,” and I didn’t trust “the man.” Worse, I was self-righteous about it, in that infuriating way that only mid-to-late teens can be, when they are sure they know everything and will live forever. I “knew” that the war in Viet Nam was immoral, that the Age of Aquarius was coming and any minute now everything would be fair, that street drugs should be legal, that sex between consenting souls should be free and easy and nobody’s business but my own, and that there would be flying cars in the year 2000. I would later come to believe that I was right about some things and wrong about others, and I’m still waiting for my flying car. But at the time, I was sure in the way that only the young can be sure.
And I did all of that while getting good grades in school, continuously holding down at least one job from the age of 14 onward (I lied about my age).
Ungrateful, undisciplined, disrespectful little twerp that I was.
So what’s the difference in the generations? I am a Boomer; I bought my parents line, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Admittedly, I thought it a bit odd, from an early age – I mean, why would you want a cake you couldn’t ever eat? But I went along, did what I was supposed to do even while railing against the man and raising hell.
The X-ers, our younger siblings and older children, said “I can too have my cake and eat it too, just you watch!” And they worked just as hard, for the most part, some rebelling and some not, some becoming yuppies and some becoming social activists, but all still accepting the premise that the cake and the eating were separate. Although both were possible, they couldn’t happen at the same time, and delayed gratification was still the order of the day.
And then came the Millenials, who seem to me to be saying “Um, no, I don’t want your cake. I’ll make my own thanks, by my own recipe, and I don’t really care what you think. Oh, and I’ll eat it when I feel like eating it, because the future you’ve left me is so tenuous that delayed gratification might be no gratification at all.”
Is that entitled?
Well, yes, but let’s look at the world they’re inheriting. Electronically, everything is networked, interconnected, and social. Communication is instantaneous, feedback immediate. As cool as it is that the iPhone we now use has lightning-fast global communication and 100,000 times the memory of the mainframe on which I learned to do research as an undergrad, our youth have also inherited a world with runaway climate change, economic prospects with unemployment at rates 3 to 5 times that of older workers, and parents whose urban myths propagate at the speed of light because they’re on Facebook too.
Therein lies my final point: what my parents thought about me propagated through conversation among neighbors and workmates. It took years or months, at shortest weeks, for even sensational urban legends to propagate across the country. What we think about our children and grandchildren propagates at the same speed as other networked information; in today’s world an opinion can “go viral” and attract literally tens of thousands of views in a day.
In the end, I venture this: the younger generation of today is no more, and no less, entitled than we were. They are no more, and no less, lazy than we were. Now, as then, there were those who would stand head and shoulders above their peers, and those who would end up in prison, and occasionally someone would be both. The difference isn’t in the degree of entitlement; it’s in the speed with which our opinions propagate, and their visibility .
And, by the way, I happen to think they are right: why shouldn’t they make their own cakes, given that the ones we are offering are so terribly flawed? Maybe they can learn to bake better than us, and to enjoy what comes out of their ovens. Maybe, if we’re lucky, they will share a cake with us and teach us to enjoy eating it while we still have time.
Dr Les Kertay, Awakened Moments