A well-known, widely-read author, Jeffrey Zaslow, in a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, helps us to understand the current Entitlement Epidemic, an epidemic that seems to be affecting Americans today.
July 27, 2007 — Mr. Zaslow’s article entitled, “The Entitlement Epidemic: Who’s Really to Blame,” struck a chord with me last week as it did with many others who were attending a summer institute course on teaching advanced placement high school economics. He wrote about the epidemic being evident among our youth. But the problem is not only with them. The problem, we teachers decided, affects all of us. It affects us individually and it affects us collectively.
Our course curriculum was too full for us to spend much time discussing it during class, but several of us had plenty to say about it during our morning and afternoon breaks. We decided that the subject is basic to our understanding of much that is going on in our economy today.
Parents, do any of these statements sound familiar? “Mary has one, why can’t I have one too?” “It’s not fair!” “I just can’t show up without something new to wear.” “I just can’t live without one!” “Ugh! This old thing is a pile of junk, we deserve better.” “It’s not fair!” “Everybody else is doing it.”
Truth be told, our current generation of young people isn’t the first to have an inflated sense of entitlement. But the situation is obviously growing worse in our country. And whose fault is it? Well, more about this later.
When I was very young, my mother and I lived off and on with my grandparents. On my mother’s wages and tips as a waitress, we just couldn’t make it on our own. Anyway, my mother’s younger brother lived with us too, so I very naturally gauged myself against what he, my uncle, was given and what he was allowed to do. I’m not proud of it, but just to make a point here, I clearly remember pitching a fit one Saturday morning when the family was shopping at an Army/Navy surplus center and discount store. My grandparents had bought my uncle a new pair of “engineer” boots, they were much in-vogue then following the Marlon Brando movie, “The Wild One,” and my grandparents were expecting me to be satisfied with a new pair of sneakers. Sneakers!? My self-esteem was crushed. Mammaaa!
One of my own sons, when he was nine or ten I think, got into the BMX biking craze of the late 70s. He raced his bike on Saturday mornings but rarely did he finish with the pack, usually he was well behind it. He cried and whined for weeks on end because his bike was standard equipment – not customized with after-market, carbon-graphic this and chrome-molybdenum that. If only he had a better bike, he argued, he could win. So, we finally caved-in and gave him enough to buy a new, lightweight frame, which he quite literally slept with until I could prioritize enough time to help him build it up with parts from his old bike and a few other components for which he had traded belongings with his friends. Notwith- standing, after the rebuild was finished, he fared no better in subsequent races that he entered. His passion for racing soon ended.
So, what’s different today? Why do I share these personal stories with you? My son and I were certainly no less afflicted with the entitlement bug than the young people of today are, but we both learned something from our bouts with it. Far from immune to want (we are all human after all), we learned as we matured to delay gratification and to invest more of our time and energy into knowledge and skills for a better tomorrow. I don’t see this happening among many of my students today. Neither do I see this happening much among many of our younger friends’ sons and daughters — some, sure. But I just don’t see it as a moral imper- ative in our consumer culture of today that we must earn our keep. What I do see is a rude awakening waiting for many on the horizon… more and more kids choosing easy paths, liberal arts over engineering, basket weaving over calculus, fewer young adults willing to take jobs in construction or learn a trade in plumbing, electricity, or auto mechanics (these jobs are increas- ingly being filled by immigrants upon whom we’ve grown overly dependent). I see more and more young people having to move back in with parents after graduation from college because the good, entry-level jobs in the global economy are all going overseas to those who are better prepared and willing to accept less in compensation.
Why is this happening? Who’s to blame? The list of suspects, according to Mr. Zaslow, is long. It includes the state of California, Mr. Rogers, Burger King, FedEx, MTV, and parents. Mr. Zaslow especially credits over-indulgent parents for the trend. But I think parents are only passing-on the affliction and compounding the problem, one generation to the next. The more things we have, the more we want.
In my opinion, this all started with the birth of modern advertising in the late 40s and early 50s when mass media, especially tele- vision, began creating demand for products that nobody needed and spreading confusion and apathy over the dangers of products like cigarettes and over-the-counter drugs. Patronage, both for products and for politicians, has become a compodity with a price tag. Now we even have marketing aimed at our children for toys manufactured in China, for crying out loud, and nutrition-less breakfast cereals made largely of refined sugar. While Americans get bigger around the waist on fast-food and sugary drinks, corporate America gets bigger around its middle too; mergers and franchises have all but crowded out the little guys. Innovation is gobbled-up by the behemoths and buried if it threatens established business interests.
This is not the “free enterprise” that was envisioned by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations.
As parents, our own “wants vs. needs” and our surrender to the consumer culture that many believe fuels our economic growth does set a strong example. Just consider our willingness on average today to bear over $10,000 of credit card debt per household and to pay upwards of 20% interest year-after-year on it. Just consider our willingness to agree to adjustable rate mortgages on oversized homes knowing full well that the day will surely come when we will no longer be able to afford to live in them. Just consider our preference for driving oversized, gas-guzzling vehicles like pickup trucks and Hummers back and forth to distant workplaces, hastening the day when the world’s oil reserves will diminish to a trickle. Just consider our willingness to allow the government to add to the national debt year-after-year, increasing the interest burden our sons and daughters will have to pay so that we might have more disposable income today.
America, truly, we have mortgaged our future for pleasure, convenience and comfort today. Okay? So, what are we to do about it?
There are remedies that we teachers talked about last week, but only if adults are willing to model good behavior. We need to pull ourselves away from the television and start reading more. In their very popular book, “Freakonomics,” authors and economists Steven D. Levitt and Stephan J. Dubner point out that among the factors that are most strongly correlated with students’ having high test scores in school are whether there are many books in the home. Sure, the most important factor listed is whether the student has highly educated parents who are socially and econom- ically well-off. But nowhere on the list did I see that large collec- tions of DVDs, video games and satellite TV in the home are contributing factors.
Next, I think, we need to start weaning ourselves from credit card debt and taking more interest in people than in things. We need to get back to the way things were before bankruptcy was just a pay day away for many. And we need to find a way to spend more quality time with our kids during their formative years, whatever the cost. These are challenges for economist in each of us to solve.
On a national level, we need to allocate more of our nation’s resources to investments in human capital, public health, infra- structure, and technologies for the future, spending less on current consumption. We need to make conservation a priority again, before the environment becomes unfit for humans and other living things, and we need to restore fairness and equity in our tax code for what used to be a large middle class. Too few these days are reaping too much for doing too little – capitalism has run amok!
We are not all stock owners, but we are all stock holders. This is because high profits today, without a vision for tomorrow, will translate into disaster for us all. Rather than waging wars to ensure the continued flow of oil from the rest of the world, we need to be about the business of developing energy alternatives here at home. The oil’s going to run out sooner or later anyway, and just because we have the biggest appetite for it doesn’t mean that we are entitled to the largest share. This needs to be a national priority, coming to grips with this part of America’s entitlement epidemic, and we need to make sure that our next leaders, at both state- and national levels, are people who understand this.
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