The word of the year seems to be “entitled.” Get a group of older adults together and you’ll hear a fair amount of grumbling about the self-centeredness and selfishness of the 20- and 30-somethings. They’re the new Me Generation, the kids who have been coddled and spoiled by parents, given trophies for just showing up, and repeatedly told that they are special just the way they are. They question authority, expect rapid promotions, and think they deserve a lot for doing very little. Paradoxically, they also feel that they have a right to stay dependent on aging parents well into their twenties. Right? Wrong. This generation is as diverse as those that came before.
The current group of 50+ year olds would do well to remember that we were the recipients of similar exasperation from our 50’s and 60’s parents. Labeled and skewered by Tom Wolfe as the occupants of the first “Me Decade” our huge demographic bulge has fascinated and terrified for decades. We came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s. The styles of the times, long hair, short skirts, and refusing to shave (both sexes), scandalized our elders. Music and dance styles made parents roll their eyes and wonder what the world was coming to.
Under that umbrella of prevailing style, however, were enormous differences. Yes, there were those who embraced free love, dropped acid, and dropped out. Others joined in a cult of self-absorption, spending money and time primal screaming, rebirthing, pre-deathing, and encounter grouping in a constant quest for self-actualization.
But there were also those who gave years of their lives to the Peace Corps, Vista Volunteers, and nonprofits. They organized communities and established schools, medical and mental health clinics, and legal services for the poor and disenfranchised. They campaigned for equality among the races and between the sexes. Some fought as honorably as they knew how in the Viet Nam war. Others fought equally honorably against it. To characterize the entire generation as drugged out hippies trailing behind the Grateful Dead or navel-gazers endlessly searching for the “aha” moment of self -would do the generation a huge disservice.
Whatever the conventional wisdom about the Boomers, as adults we encompass the political far left to the far right; the still pony-tailed human service provider to the buttoned-down corporate executive. We may all remember when the Beatles came to America; we may think of the Frost-Nixon interview as a memory, not a movie; we may have some shared and powerful cultural references, but ultimately the characterization of Boomers as the first generation of “me” doesn’t mean much.
Today’s Generation: No Different?
Today’s generation of young people is no different. Yes, there are those who spend more time in the virtual than the actual world, making relationships with people they will never meet. Others seem addicted to constant background music of their own choosing. Rap makes the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones seem like lullabies. Piercings, tattoos, and, shall we say, innovative hair colors and styles scandalize the adults.
Under the umbrella of prevailing style, however, are enormous differences. Yes, there are kids who think they are entitled to get what they want just because they want it. They are the college students who debate their professors’ evaluation of lackluster work on the grounds that the “tried hard” or who feel that they deserve a top job despite minimal effort. They are the 20-somethings who are living with their parents because they would rather buy a better car than pay their own rent and whose parents can’t seem to find a way to tell them to grow up and get on with life.
But there are also college students who year after year go on “Alternative Spring Break.” While some of their peers party on Florida beaches, these kids continue the work to clean up and rebuild cities and towns hit by Katrina and Rita. Interest in community service through such organizations as the Peace Corps, Volunteers of America, and AmeriCorps is again reaching the high of the ’60s. Young people are volunteering to staff the Special Olympics, to be a Best Buddy, and to clean up the environment. They are signing on to Bill Cosby’s Bridges to the Future Project to improve impoverished rural schools. Some fight with conviction and honor in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others fight with equal conviction and honor against those wars. There are young people who work at two and three jobs to put themselves through college, who accept and learn from their teachers’ critiques, and who expect to work hard for whatever they get. To characterize the entire generation as entitled and whining about their “Quarterlife Crisis” would do the generation a huge disservice.
Whatever the conventional wisdom about the youth of today, they encompass the political far left to the far right; the tattooed rapper to the computer whizzes of Silicon Valley. 9/11 may be a shared defining event for their generation; they may all know how to simultaneously text, Twitter, and Facebook while plugged into iPods; they may have some shared and powerful cultural references, but ultimately the characterization of the kids of the early 21st century as an entitled generation doesn’t mean much.
It’s just true that every adolescent group pushes on adult values as a way to establish their own identity. Behavior that shocks and appalls certainly gets the attention of the media and reactions from those of us who make a living commenting on trends. Often, the result is a label that makes for good news and endless analysis but that also overwhelms the reality of diversity.
It also puts the current grownups in the good company of generations of adults who have gone before. Consider this quote from a thinker named Hesiod in the eighth century B.C.: “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”
Or how about this one, attributed by Plato to Socrates of ancient Greece: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”
Like most attempts to characterize a generation, the idea of entitlement may be trendy, and even accurate for some, but the truth is far more complicated. Why can’t kids today be more like we were? The answer is simply that they are.