Not so long ago, the word entitlement was wrought with negative connotations and implied actions and attitudes outré to society’s values. This word suggested unfairness, inequality, and unwarranted specialness in measuring the merit of an individual or group against everybody else. It is a word we have heard often applied to celebrities and political figures whenever they break the rules and demand those rules somehow do not apply to them. As a society, we used to castigate such irrational posturing, as it was deemed too contrary to our consensual values, and we worked to dissuade entitled attitudes from our children, as it was deemed dangerous. In the past 20 years, entitlement has managed to change its spots and walk unimpeded among us. This resulted from our tendency to view problems as products of some deficiency, the solution to which is providing supplementation. At the dawn of the millennials, the problem of low self-esteem was treated with high doses of self-confidence, and the mindset of “I’m special and deserve the best” became a promoted mantra. Unfortunately, it seems that mantra has developed into an automatic thought, a cornerstone of epistemological schemata, with implications for our society unfolding almost too fast to digest. In fact, one may argue it is no longer a mantra at all; rather, it is a primary assumption through which all other information is filtered, altered, and spread.
While teaching an undergraduate introductory psychology course, I encountered an interesting problem with a student. He was failing the class and needed to complete his paper in order to get a passing grade. His paper, however, did not satisfy the requirements to ensure a passing grade, and, as a consequence, he was going to fail. This student came to me and asked what he needed to do to pass the class. It was as if the notion of failure was incomprehensible to him. My attempts to outline the reasons for his failure did not dissuade him from his pursuit in finding some kind of solution. As the futility of his attempts to find a way for me to change his grade dawned on him, this student did not acquiesce and accept that his failure was the result of his own shortcomings in that particular class. Rather, he suggested my grading was unfair, and he pointed out how it was entirely within my power to view his paper as acceptable. He was correct in suggesting his grade was in my power, but he was wrong in assuming this argument would be commensurate in determining the grade he deserved. At the end of our conversation which was really more of a debate, the matter seemed settled. However, just before leaving, this student turned to me and said, “I’m going to pass this class” before walking out of the room. The exact content of my thoughts at that time escape me, but I do remember very distinctly the word “delusional” being prominent. As it would turn out, I was the delusional one. After meetings with his advisor and eventually the dean, the student was able to pass the class despite his failure to meet the requirements set forth in my syllabus. In the end, this student was able to propel himself into the exception category by virtue of playing a card guaranteed, it seems, these days to win every time. That is, his ideas and interpretations of things, although different from mine, could not be wrong, and, from this logic, he had the right to pass.
This story illustrates how self-confidence, self-expression, and notions of progress have morphed into an ever-expanding culture of egocentrism and entitlement. As a society we are navigating through a paradoxical conflict, which is the result of two seemingly incompatible mentalities colliding to synergistically create the cultural perfect storm. This storm involves our desire to encourage and embrace the unique talents of our children and of ourselves, while also craving entertainment and distraction from our ever-growing technological arsenal of cell phones, computers, iPads, etc. All of these things force us deeper into ourselves while giving the illusion of connecting us to others. But all of these connections are customized based on our preferences, based on our likes, based on our ideals and values. Ultimately, the ways in which we now interact with the world on a regular basis do not require us to consider others from their unique perspectives in a meaningful or relational way. Millennial entitlement is the byproduct of a system of communication and information technology that promotes and relies upon self-propaganda for survival. Today it is all-too-common for every child to get a trophy regardless of his or her performance in a game. The concept of losing is no longer possible in light of our new shared belief in specialness. When we encounter some idea or some group which is outside our preferences, we simply click them effortlessly away and go in search of information that validates our worldview. Thus, knowledge has become opinion and facts a matter for serious debate. Even our conception of news has become a matter of opinion, with opinion polls and segments devoted to viewer comments.
Millennial entitlement is so ubiquitous and pervasive in our society it is difficult to see how it is impacting and altering our social landscape. Given its influence on our understanding of knowledge and its power over our ability to agree on consensually valid elements of reality, it is no doubt a threat to any meaningful progress. As people continue to accrue accolades for failures, gain titles without mastery, and interpret rules from whims, we will all suffer the consequences, regardless of how we feel about it.