There's been a lot of talk lately about what Americans are "entitled" to – jobs, health care, houses … the list seems to grow daily. Merriam-Webster's defines "entitle" as follows: "to furnish with proper grounds for seeking or claiming something." But ask 50 Americans what they believe they're entitled to in life, and you'll probably get 50 different answers. For example, some believe they're entitled only to "certain unalienable rights," like the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Others believe they're entitled to those basic rights plus some basic material necessities, like food, clothing, shelter and health care. Still others believe they're entitled to those basic rights and necessities plus some help starting and maintaining the pursuit of happiness, like an education and a minimum wage, some financial assistance or forbearance during difficult times, and time off from work with job security during a health crisis. While we might not agree on exactly what we are entitled to, most reasonable Americans can agree that we are not entitled to material things that we have not earned and that are not essential to our living productive lives.
Alarmingly increasing numbers of Americans, however, seem to have difficulty seeing any limits to their entitlement, and as a result of their "entitlement attitudes," they're behaving in ways that are harming themselves in the short run and the country in the long run. These are the 20-somethings who took six years to earn bachelors' degrees, left college with $10,000 in credit card debt, and still feel entitled to big-screen televisions because "other people" have them, even though "other people" have worked harder, educated themselves better and saved longer. These are the 40-somethings who used sub-prime mortgages to buy far more expensive houses than their earnings could support and now can't make their payments. These are the 60-somethings who've had the latest cars, the best vacation photos, the latest fashions and no savings for several decades, and are now bitter as they face a choice between working for the rest of their lives or subsisting on Social Security. But none of these people came into the world with an entitlement attitude. Slowly, over time, with the help of their parents, their teachers and our popular culture, entitlement attitudes blossomed, grew and ripened into full-blown, individual and societal, economic and interpersonal, disasters.
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Well-meaning parents are the foremost instillers and nurturers of entitlement attitudes. When they go beyond satisfying all of their children's needs and start satisfying all of the children's wants as well, these parents not only "spoil" the kids figuratively, but they also literally spoil the kids' chances of learning how to manage resources responsibly. When kids learn to expect excess rather than to anticipate scarcity, they learn to expect needs and wants to be satisfied equally rather than to differentiate and prioritize between and among them. They also learn to expect others to make sacrifices for them rather than to be self-reliant. They lose the connection between getting what they want and doing something of value, and they learn to go about getting what they want by placing demands on others rather than by making themselves useful to others. They also learn to expect instant gratification rather than to delay gratification, an ability that separates achievers from non-achievers in every society on Earth!
Particularly in the past 20-30 years, well-meaning educators have played a part in fostering entitlement attitudes in children as well. They set out to teach kids to have "self-esteem" by promoting unconditional positive self-regard, whereby kids grow up feeling good about themselves regardless of what they're doing. This teaching philosophy, while well-intended to prevent such conditions as mood and eating disorders in children and teens, has been pushed beyond the limits of its usefulness in many American schools. It confuses "esteem," admiration that should be earned whether it's for the self or for others, with "respect," recognition of basic human dignity that should be afforded to the self and to others unconditionally. When that important distinction is not made, kids learn that there's no relationship between how they behave and how they should feel about themselves. They learn to assert themselves inappropriately in situations that call for humility rather than assertiveness.
American popular culture increasingly fosters entitlement attitudes also. Phenomena such as social networking websites, Internet video posting, omnipresent advertising filled with idealized body images, highly rated plastic surgery shows on television, pills for everything from the slightest negative emotion to effortless weight loss, and the skyrocketing divorce rate all seem to reflect and promote an excessive, narcissistic focus on the self. This teaches young people growing up in our culture that the world revolves around them. It teaches them that if something makes them feel better about themselves, they should do it or have it. It also encourages them to make decisions based solely on what they want and to disregard the impacts of their actions on others. By promoting excessive self-focus and encouraging self-indulgence, our culture reinforces a worldview in which entitlement attitudes thrive: that life is all about getting what we want.
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Pervasive entitlement attitudes are harming Americans in a myriad of ways. Debt created by entitlement-driven purchasing decisions can lead to legal problems, bankruptcy and foreclosure, which, in addition to destroying one's credit and placing one's financial well-being in jeopardy for years, can cause a tremendous amount of stress, which in turn, can pervade one's life and strain one's relationships. Successful interpersonal relationships require mutual sacrifice, but people with entitlement attitudes often expect sacrifice from others without expecting to reciprocate. While this creates resentment in others, people with entitlement attitudes tend to harbor plenty of their own resentment. They're likely to be jealous and resentful of others who appear to have more or better possessions, positions, or relationships. Neither jealousy nor resentment tends to facilitate the formation of healthy relationships or to improve existing relationships. Entitlement attitudes make it easier for people to justify satisfying their interpersonal wants through dishonest or hurtful means, such as marital infidelity, and depending on the depth of a person's belief that his or her wants are deserved, challenging that belief could even provoke the kind of anger that leads to abusive behavior.
In the workplace specifically, people with entitlement attitudes tend to believe that their work should be valued highly by others regardless of its quality. They're unlikely to work very hard to acquire and demonstrate skills and likely to blame others rather than taking responsibility for poor performance. An entitlement attitude makes it difficult to be appropriately self-critical and to accept constructive criticism from others, and if one neither identifies his or her own weaknesses nor entertains constructive feedback, improvement and advancement are unlikely. Notwithstanding, these individuals tend to be quick to assert expectations of rapid advancement before establishing track records of success, which only hinders their chances of getting it by offending superiors who've earned their positions through hard work, solid performance and loyalty over time. Workers with entitlement attitudes also have an easier-than-average time rationalizing the acquisition of money or things through unethical or even illegal means, particularly when they're in competition with peers who excel through superior ability or strong work ethics, putting their jobs, their reputations and even their freedom in jeopardy. Embezzlement and fraud of the types that have led to highly publicized and financially devastating corporate scandals in recent years, plus rampant identity theft and even outright theft of money or property, all can be traced back to the perpetrators' entitlement attitudes.
So I ask you, to what are we entitled? I say, not much beyond the basics – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And how will it affect our country if entitlement attitudes are increasingly reinforced within it? I say, profoundly negatively. What do we do about it? I'll tell you in Part 2 tomorrow.
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Brian Russell is a licensed psychologist, attorney at law and familiar national television pundit on psychological, legal and cultural issues.