Another day, another complaint about those dang young people.
I’m not talking about Jonah Goldberg’s recent interview, in which he made the fairly ho-hum point that young people are, in general, ignorant. I’m talking about the woman in line next to me at the grocery store, talking into her cell phone. “You know these kids,” she was saying. “They think they should just be able to get out of college and step right into a job.”
I don’t know the backstory, of course. Maybe the “kid” in question was refusing to wear a tie for an important interview. Maybe he got C’s in college and then thought he deserved a six-figure salary just for graduating. Still, it seems like I’ve been hearing this sort of complaint a lot lately, and it gets me to thinking. I can understand heaping scorn on the young when they demand handouts. But jobs? Would better-bred young people cheerfully accept that it’s normal to spend several months living out of their parents’ basements and scrounging for interviews while delivering papers and flipping burgers in order to keep on top of their college loans?
No one needs to lecture me on the aggravating features of the young. I teach undergraduate courses, so I see twenty-year-olds at their most insecure. Actually, non-tenured academics get to experience the young in a particularly degrading way, because we, for professional reasons, need them to give us good teaching evaluations. We actually have to make the little tyrants like us, if we care about staying employed. So we know all about their ignorance, and their hunger for affirmation, and their – to use the favorite buzz-word –entitlement.
Ah, entitlement. It’s a funny word, really. What does it mean? It has something to do with the perception that one deserves something. When it is used pejoratively, presumably that implies that a person’s sense of entitlement is ill-founded; he doesn’t really deserve the things he thinks he should get. This plunges us into some very thorny questions about justice and fairness and the like. Rather than sort through these, I would like to make a simple observation: all of us expect a great many things out of life that we have not earned.
This is particularly obvious to those of us who care for young children. Children are regular black holes of neediness. They want, and want, and go on wanting long after your resources are exhausted; babies in particular have no sense whatsoever of there being reasonable boundaries on their demands. What is more, children experience every denial as a personal injury. Talk about entitlement! What has my 2-year-old done to deserve another playground trip, another story, or even another nutritious meal? His contributions to the household are minimal, to say the least. And yet, I would rightly feel guilty if I never gave him these good things. His expectations are based on his needs, and on his perception of what is required to make his life worthwhile. And even though his individual demands are often unreasonable, the underlying premises are moderately sound. As a human being, he does have moral worth, and he ought to live a worthwhile life. As one who bears significant responsibility for his existence, I ought to be interested in seeing that he does.
Some might hasten to remind me that twenty-year-olds are not toddlers; if there is a strong resemblance between the two, that may be part of the problem. It seems to me, though, that all of us are like toddlers to a considerable extent. We set our expectations and lay our plans based on what we see around us. When the rules change on us mid-stream, we get frustrated, upset and angry. Many complain about the entitlement of the Millennials, but as a thirty-something (so, old enough to have been paying my own bills for a good while, but young enough to be confident that I’m not getting Social Security) it sometimes seems to me that the Boomers are awfully entitled, demanding benefits that they haven’t adequately funded and thinking the difference should be made up by a too-small generation that many of them couldn’t be bothered to help raise. Such is the way of the world, however. We form expectations based on the world we see around us. We feel entitled, and when the world doesn’t give us what we regard as our fair share, we think we’ve been cheated. We are all, to put it bluntly, entitled jerks.
I diagnose the problems of the rising generation thusly. They were raised in a time of peace and prosperity. Their parents and teachers effectively promised them that they could enjoy the same if they worked hard and kept their noses clean and stayed in school. It seemed like a good trade. Unfortunately, the deal was mostly illusory. Their college degrees were much more expensive than their parents’, and are much less marketable. The job market has turned bleak at precisely the time when the national debt is spiraling out of control. At precisely the time when they most desperately want support, their elders start grumbling about how entitled they are. Twenty-somethings are always so easy to criticize, but personally, I find it hard to blame them for being angry and confused. With the mirage of their parents’ comfortable lifestyle dissipating, they literally do not know what sort of lives they can expect to live. Somehow they’re supposed to pay their own debts and the nation’s debt, and raise families at the same time, all despite the fact that nobody wants to hire them. The math doesn’t quite add up.
I’ve occasionally been accused of inciting intergenerational warfare, but it seems to me that I’m not so much inciting as observing that intergenerational conflict is imminent, and will only be averted if we can find ways to adapt, together, to a changing world. The truth is that we all probably feel entitled to things we’re not going to be able to have, whether that be a comfortable retirement or an interesting job or a three-bedroom house with a yard. We’ll adapt. It’s what people do. But if indeed older Americans are so replete with wisdom and experience, perhaps they should take this opportunity to show it by being the bigger people. Stop blaming the young for problems they didn’t create.