If you type “Millennials are” into Google, chances are that auto-complete will fill in the word “entitled” at the end of your sentence.
As a millennial myself, I can certainly see where a lot of this criticism is coming from — as a generation, we were coddled as children. We were given medals just for participating; we were benefactors of grade inflation; and I’ll even admit that we may be selfish and narcissistic.
But what these statements often hide is that despite all these perceived advantages, Millennials by no means have an easier go at life. Let’s start with the grade inflation, for example: While grades may very well be inflated in, say, high school, does that make it easier for Millennials to get into college? Of course, the well-known truth is precisely opposite: Millennials today face the most competitive college application process in history.
Once in college, Millennials must contend with astronomical tuition rates — even in publicly-funded state schools where they are supposed to enjoy lower costs. In my own state of California, annual tuition for the California State University (CSU) system has risen seven-fold from about $1,000 to close to $7,000, while annual tuition at the University of California has risen five-fold from about $2,000 to more than $11,000, with more increases likely on the way.
And even once Millennials have completed college and are saddled with debt, they must contend with the harsh reality of the job market — namely that their bachelor’s degrees do not guarantee employment like high school counselors claimed they would. In 2012, a study by the Associated Press showed that over half of college graduates were either unemployed or underemployed — that is, working a job that doesn’t even require a college degree. Perhaps you can contend that more students should be directed towards STEM degrees or away from college altogether and be offered apprenticeship programs — but that is hardly useful for the Millennials today who are jobless and saddled with student debt.
And finally, America’s Social Security and Medicare programs are facing significant challenges, both fiscal and political, and it is not an insignificant concern that these programs will not be available to aid Millennials when they reach old age. Social Security, for example, is projected to run out of money in 2037 (provided that funds are not taken out for other purposes) — precisely as the oldest Millennials approach retirement. If Medicare will not be available for Millennials, they will be the first generation of Americans since the Greatest Generation (those who fought in WWII) not to receive Medicare. If Social Security will not be available for Millennials, they will be the first generation since the Silent Generation (those who fought in WWI) not to receive Social Security.
Comedian Jon Stewart once said in his commencement address for the class of 2014 of William and Mary College in Virginia, “I know we were supposed to bequeath to the next generation a world better than the one we were handed. So, sorry.”
While Stewart’s remark is tinged with sardonic humor, it does contain a critical and somewhat frightening nugget of truth: Millennials are the first generation in modern American history to be worse off economically than their parents.
Now, everything I’ve just written may seem like nothing more than a long and whiny list of complaints, which in turn makes me sound like a entitled Millennial.
But really, what is entitlement, anyway?
According to Merriam-Webster, entitlement is defined as a “belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges.” But what are those privileges, precisely?
A famous saying commonly misattributed to Mark Twain quips: “The world owes you nothing; it was here first.”
It may be extremely tempting to define entitlement from this angle: Anybody who believes that he deserves anything more than jack squat without working for it is entitled. But that definition ignores the fact that nearly all of us expect more than nothing out of life — in fact, that’s actually one of the great hallmarks of an advanced civilization. We have built up a complex and stable social order that we expect to run smoothly, and not spontaneously collapse. In other words, we expect that the basic workings of society will remain roughly constant across long periods of time.
And that’s why the description “entitled” falls unfairly upon Millennials. It is unfair to conflate what actual narcissism or selfishness may exist in our generation (as it does in every generation) with the very reasonable expectation that every generation shares: If we do not slack off, our lives will at least not be worse than that of our parents.
Except, for the Millennials, that expectation did not come true.
And that begs the question: What are we even entitled to?
We were indeed coddled as children; we were indeed given medals just for participating; we were indeed benefactors of grade inflation; and we probably are selfish and narcissistic…
But, make no mistake, we are also a generation that has not had many of the advantages that at least the previous generation had. In other words, many of the things Millennials feel entitled to (a proper social safety net that remains funded until our retirement, for example) are things previous generations took for granted.
I’m not going to argue that Millennials are victims or that the system or its institutions have somehow failed this generation. Interesting arguments can be made for these propositions, but I’m really not here to assign blame.
But I will say this: Millennials do not have it easy. Just like every generation that has come before, we, as Millennials, face unique and arduous challenges ahead.
And that’s why it’s pointless to try to assign blame for the present predicaments facing our generation (and the world, for that matter) — be it the supposed institutional failures that supposedly drove Millennials to the ground, or a supposed personality flaw within the generation that makes its complaints automatically invalid.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.