There’s a “common thread” tying together a lot of our society’s current problems as well as a lot of major stories in the news lately, ranging from the many Americans over-eating and over-burdening the health care system with preventable cases of heart disease and diabetes, to the many Americans over-borrowing and over-burdening the financial system with “underwater” mortgages, to the many Americans rampantly abusing the latest “designer” intoxicants (and the modern-day “snake oil” of “medical” marijuana), to the unprecedented numbers of Americans applying for public assistance , and even — at the extreme — to these recent shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. What is it? Entitlement. There’s an entitled over-indulgence connecting all of it, and it doesn’t bode well for our ability to compete with our (mostly figuratively but somewhat literally) “leaner and meaner” global competitors in the years ahead.
I’ve written on this extensively in the past, but essentially, this sense of entitlement comes from a progressive tendency of too many Americans no longer to see themselves as part of something larger than themselves, no longer to have compunction about using, abusing, or endangering their fellow Americans for short-term gratification. And our culture fosters such self-absorption all day long (e.g. social media, advertising, even the “entitlement” terminology that we use to describe wealth-redistribution programs that essentially amount to government-mandated charity). This “cultural drift” that I write about is kind of like the “continental drift” that we all learned about in high school geography class — it’s happening so gradually that we don’t often notice it until there’s a major event like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption (or a mass shooting).
Why is it happening? Part of it is that people are getting divorced more (which means fewer parents and less time to discuss values and morals in the home), part of it is that people are going to church less (another primary venue for the discussion of morals and values), and part of it is that there’s little or no discussion of morals and values in the public schools anymore for fear of lawsuits alleging “moralizing” or “proselytizing” (and there’s also still an over-emphasis on self-esteem in our schools without any nexus between the kids’ esteem and achievement). So, if people aren’t learning about morals and values at home, church, or school, then where else is there? Part of it is also a “natural” consequence of sustained societal progress and prosperity in that it’s relatively easy to get entitled and self-absorbed when you’ve gotten accustomed to “access to excess” (more than you need in life) unless you actively counter it with things like morals and values discussion at home, and/or in church, and/or at school (just look at the celebrities who’ve had everything and still been suicidally unhappy – probably because they’ve looked inward for meaning instead of outward, no longer seeing themselves as part of something larger than themselves).
Yes, the “being part of something larger than oneself” idea can be taken to the extreme as well – the Japanese launched Kamikaze attacks in WWII, sending people on suicide missions because they didn’t value individual pilots’ lives, and communist countries have confiscated individuals’ property because they haven’t valued individual achievement. As an MBA, I think we were better off when much of our global competition was that far over on the collectivist end of the (collectivist-individualist) spectrum while we were well on the individualist side of that spectrum but not all the way over at the extreme “entitled” end. Now, it’s like we’ve all drifted in the individualist direction, meaning they’ve drifted closer to where we were on the spectrum during our most rapid economic growth spurt, while we’ve drifted progressively closer to the extreme “entitled” end.
That’s why I worry that unless we reverse course quickly, our global competition could actually overtake us (economically) in the years ahead, at least temporarily, until their progress and prosperity brings the entitlement problem to their societies. I see the entitlement mentality in the college classroom every semester, and I worry about what it means for my students’ economic futures. Plus, as a psychologist, I worry about what it means generally for Americans’ marriages, families, and even our very public safety, as evidenced by the recent shooting stories (e.g. the shooter at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. last week reportedly prefaced that shooting with the statement, “I don’t like your politics,” revealing his belief the he’s entitled to kill those whose politics differ from his — that’s about as malignantly “entitled” as it gets).
(By the way, I’m aware that some viewers and readers don’t like it when I talk about entitlement, typically because I call into question the validity of the various rationalizations that they’ve used to justify/excuse their own entitlement attitudes. That’s something I don’t worry about. Maybe someday I’ll do a call-in radio show, and then those folks can call in and discuss it with me for a few minutes at a time. For now, though, I’ve decided to use my limited writing time not to attempt to persuade individuals but rather to inform as many people as possible about what my education, experience, and examination of various issues has led me to conclude. When people choose to incorporate my thoughts into their lives, I’m heartened, but when they choose to ignore what I have to say, I really don’t take it personally.)