“Kids nowadays! Hmpf!” Whether you’re 5 or 85, at some point you might unwittingly have been dragged into a generational comparison in which your age cohort is made out to look ruder, lazier or more spoiled than the bygone youth of the spokesperson. The statement is often followed up with a sentence that starts with “In my days..” Usually we attribute this type of sentiment to the occasional hissy fits endured by otherwise beloved older relatives whenever the need to blow off some steam escalates to intolerable proportions. And often it is better respond with an approving nod than to go into a drawn-out and probably futile explanation about “how things have changed” and how the old ways of doing things simply won’t work anymore. Or we reason that the curmudgeon is probably right anyway, that we’re all degenerating under moral standards in free fall.
When I grew up in Norway in the 1970s’ and 80s the comparisons of choice were to the harsh years of World War II. Norway’s equivalent to the GI generation had felt the Nazi occupation first hand. Their stories went well beyond generational one-up man ship, and were stories about a time when courage and perseverance were tested. I have probably heard enough stories from my own family’s experiences as well as the elderly people who I used to clean house for to compile a dozen Hollywood scripts. These retired “little old ladies” in their modest two bedroom apartments on Oslo’s east end were wells of information about their unbelievable past when they bravely risked their lives while hiding Jewish acquaintances in their homes. In attics, in closets and under beds hoping the merciless Gestapo wouldn’t find them while doing their inspection rounds. All while cooking up “magic stews” from the scanty food rations provided to themselves and their scrawny children. This was the generation of parents for whom bringing sleep drunk yet panicky children to the basement upon being awoken by the “bomb alarms” in the middle of the night were as routine as singing lullabies. These were the brave men of the resistance movement who relentlessly defied the Nazi propaganda regime and were thrown in jail for it. Like my own grandfather.
After the war they started slowly rebuilding the country through policies of regulated consumption, production and enough social programs to ensure that every citizen had a decent chance to live a healthy educated life with good job opportunities. They educated the engineers and scientists that built up the oil industry and the social scientists who designed a national profit structure, which prevented oil billionaires from high jacking the nation’s natural resources. Today Norway is one of the wealthiest countries in the world with a solid national savings fund to accommodate for future uncertainties. While the rest of the world is shaking under financial eartquakes, Norwegians have nothing more to complain about than a temporary short fall of the national butter supply.
If a member of this WWII generation thought of us young Gen-X’ers as a pack of hapless punks, we’d probably think of him as a sour old grump, yet we knew there was a level of validity to his disdain – or at least envy. And deep down we were immensely thankful for his sacrifices which we knew we benefitted from.
Now fast forward 30 years and 5000 miles westward. To a time and country that has lived high on the dollar for decades and where consumption is almost imprinted into the DNA. Where the once military-dodging political leaders send their kids out to fight dubious wars under the guise of “keeping us safe”. Until things started to shatter – politically and financially. And yet the younger generations, barely old enough to open a credit card, are still vilified by their seniors. Youngsters today are portrayed as coddled, over parented primadonnas with a larger than life sense of entitlement. In fact, there is a whole industry of think-tanks, marketing firms and the like that are profiting from “analyzing” and writing about idiosyncrasies and apparently lacking work habits of this generation. So many in fact that whichever catchphrase is in vogue to describe them could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy by now. And they probably would have if these descriptions actually were true. We are of course talking about the Millennials. And in ten years we will be talking about the New Silents in this way. And in thirty years we will be talking this way about the New Boomers. Just like Generation X were put down by the generations before them. And how the Boomers were put down. And so on and so on.
The biggest problem with this kind of intergenerational bullying is that it answers very few question other than that their seniors for some reason view their heirs with disdain. Because the narrative of the criticism almost always revolve around the next generation being lazier, more spoiled and less responsive to authority that the older counterparts. In other words, the characteristics once used to describe one generation are used to describe the unique character traits of younger generation 20-40 years later. If we are looking for meaningful generational characteristics, labeling a group of people “The Entitlement Generation” makes absolutely no sense. Yet any author who publishes a book aspiring to answer “the Millennials’ inflated sense of entitlement” is almost destined to make a million. Or at least get a thousand new Twitter followers. Even with very little empirical material to substantiate their claims. And the HR managers suck it all up.
So why do I disagree with the popular notion that the Millennials (and therefore the kids coming after them) are not an authority-bashing bunch with an inflated sense of entitlement? Because they’re not – relatively speaking. For one thing several surveys have found stronger community orientation and greater volunteer activism among the younger generation than the three older ones. They might feel entitled to the flexibilities and technological gadgets that have become part of our 24/7 culture, but in reality they are in fact deprived of most real entitlements in life. That is, if getting an affordable education is an entitlement. Or getting an entry level position upon graduation. Or a job that is not threatening to lay you off the next week. Or a decent livable wage with employee benefits such as health insurance and retirement savings. Or access to a reasonable mortgage. I find it particularly interesting when older generations who established themselves during a time when such benefits were taken for granted gladly see these institutions being demolished so they don’t have to pay taxes to support them when they no longer need it for themselves. The demolition comes in two phases. First under capitalism on steroids which turned workers expendable and financial markets into ponzi schemes, then later under a self-imposed libertarian austerity regime that is supposed to correct the perversions of the former phase. It becomes almost pathetically comical when recipients of vastly expensive and possibly unsustainable entitlement programs slap the entitlement label on peers of their children or grandchildren.
A strong “sense of entitlement” is not a very fruitful brand to characterize any particular generation. Rather, maybe we should look at the various reasoning behind the sense of entitlement for each generation. I found the following article to be particularly useful: Sense of Entitlement: The Younger Generations Are Getting a Bad Rap. Whereas the older generations justify their entitlement by pointing to “years of service” the younger generations want to cash out now as there will be little in store for them later. What do you think?
Sad Child – Portrait by Jiri Hodan