the “entitled” generation?

It seems like just yesterday that Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers, doesn’t it? That’s because it actually was yesterday, or pretty close: Gladwell’s book was published on November 18th, 2008, less than four years ago. It was a huge bestseller, and while some people found his chapters obvious and/or unoriginal, I can’t remember anybody actually taking issue with Gladwell’s carefully researched and qualified reasoning.

One of the key chapters in Gladwell’s book contrasts Robert Oppenheimer and Chris Langan, both exceptionally bright people who fared quite differently in the real world. As Gladwell points out, when Oppenheimer tried to poison his tutor, his punishment was absurdly lenient (he was put on academic probation). Ultimately, he went on to become one of the nation’s top nuclear scientists. Chris Langan, on the other hand, despite immense natural gifts, has had difficulty managing more than a peculiar kind of meaningless celebrity, stemming from his wunderkind appearances on a quiz show.

The difference, says Gladwell, is entitlement. Despite disagreeing with Gladwell (I knew somebody must have), Raven Moore at “The Writerbabe Series” summarizes the chapter pretty well:

In short, Gladwell asserts through Lareau’s findings that children raised with a sense of entitlement are more likely to be successful than those who are not taught to use it (or expect it) no matter how smart they are.

Entitlement is not used negatively in this sense, but instead, conjures ideas of speaking up, asking for special treatment and ”customizing” your environment to fit your particular needs. This is not something you are born to do – you learn to do it (usually from your parents). […]

Because Langan lacked this particular skill, he had trouble navigating his way through college, financial aid paperwork and, from it what it seems, life in general.

Then, quoting Gladwell: Chris Langan only had the bleakness of Bozeman [Montana], and a home dominated by an angry, drunken stepfather….That was the the lesson Langan learned from his childhood: distrust authority and be independent….He didn’t learn entitlement. He learned constraint. It may seem like a small thing, but it was a crippling handicap in navigating the world beyond Bozeman.

At the time, we nodded our heads sagely. What’s changed?

Apparently, everything. You can’t get through a single editorial page without bumping into somebody discussing the problem of Generation Y’s sense of entitlement. It’s one of the leads in that awful “humor piece” from Cracked, which I discussed a few months back. (There’s a movie, too, called Trophy Kids. “You’re special!” is the ironic tagline.) Even more incredible is the fact that Generation Y agrees:

Generation Y — or Millennials, the Facebook Generation or whatever you want to call today’s cohort of young people — has been accused of being the laziest generation ever. They feel entitled and are coddled, disrespectful, narcissistic and impatient, say authors of books like “The Dumbest Generation” and “Generation Me.”

And three in four Americans believe that today’s youth are less virtuous and industrious than their elders, a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center found.

In a sign of humility or docility, young people agree. In that 2009 Pew survey, two-thirds of millennials said older adults were superior to the younger generation when it came to moral values and work ethic.

This is confusing, because we actually continue to foster entitlement in children (if we can afford it), and we continue to shower adulation and forgiveness on entitled adults. We elected George W. Bush president, twice. If you watch any primetime television, from Modern Family to Gossip Girl, you will get all the charismatic, entitled children you can stand. Harry Potter is more beloved than ever, and so are the children of celebrities, if they prove ambitious and enterprising in their own right.

If that’s so, then there’s good reason to be very suspicious of this “anti-entitlement” fad, which comes on like a discussion about parenting, but is actually about the workplace. Workers who are ashamed of themselves are docile. We shouldn’t be looking to create a docile business culture, obviously, but then “innovation” and “self-direction” are, like “entitlement,” masterpieces of American ambivalence. A highly misleading, unscrupulous article by the always-dependable New York Post, entitled “The worst generation ever?“, concludes thus:

“There’s a chance we’re going to have a group of disappointed and disgruntled employees,” [Stacy Campbell] says. “Surely there could be a crisis if no one budges — where Gen Y says, ‘I want everything,’ and the company says, ‘You’re not getting anything.’”

I couldn’t have put it better myself…and that crisis? Eighteen months later, it’s everywhere you look.