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On Those “Entitled” Twenty-Somethings

Apparently people in their 20s are a bunch of entitled whiners. I also hear we’re afraid of hard work. I’m rather sick of hearing it. Of course we have a sense of entitlement—we had an understanding with the older generation. We followed through with our half of the deal. What happened?

The word “entitlement” has picked up a negative connotation it shouldn’t have. If you go to the bank and deposit $20, you are entitled to get your $20 from the bank. If you fulfill your half of a contract, you are entitled to the other party’s performance. Sure, its a problem when you feel you deserve something you don’t deserve—but there is nothing wrong with acknowledging a legitimate debt. So let’s ask why some people in their 20s might feel the older generation hasn’t kept its end of the bargain. Let’s talk a bit about generational justice.

Our parents told us a number of things. Stay in school. Study hard. Stay off drugs. Keep your grades up. Get into the best college there is. Be the best at everything you do. Learn. Research. Excel. For me, the all-nighters doing homework started in seventh grade. School followed by extra-curriculars would start a bit before 8:00 in the morning and, for some parts of the year, could run until 9:00 or 10:00 at night. Then I started studying. Through college, commitments might go until well after midnight. Do all of this now, we were told, and when you finally graduate there will be a job for you. It may not be easy. Nobody is handing anything to you on a silver platter and you might get some dirt under your fingernails. But we had an understanding. There is, we are told, a rational system, and if we are smart enough and work hard enough, things will turn out okay. Will you achieve all of your dreams? Realistically, maybe not—but you should at least be comfortable. So what happens after graduation?

Congratulations, graduate! Go out and take on the world. What? No job? Surely you applied? You interviewed? Maybe you’re being unrealistic. Have you considered temp agencies? Retail? They’re flooded as well? Have you called? Dropped in in person? Pounded the proverbial pavement? Have you tried working your network? Is that really a stack of a hundred rejection letters? You must be doing something wrong.

For those who just graduated, there was no job. That’s not technically true. There was a job—but somebody older has it and isn’t letting go. It turns out the whole system is rigged. Education and intelligence and everything we were told was important turn out to be worth nothing next to seniority and experience.

Maybe the system was relatively fair twenty or thirty years ago—but it certainly isn’t now. Maybe there was a time, relatively recently, when young job seekers could weigh different offers or meaningfully negotiate salaries. When things got tough, that was the first thing to go. As the economy contracts there is a larger and larger focus on protecting people who already have jobs—or those who have recently lost them. Extending unemployment benefits won’t help recent graduates. In today’s economy, seniority is more important than merit. And through all of this, the wealth gap keeps expanding.

Sure, the economy is tough. Nobody meant for this to happen. People screwed up. Accidents happen. Normally, if you bungle something up and can’t fulfill your end of a bargain, you would and try to make it right. You broke it? Fix it. Or at least look embarrassed. That hasn’t happened. I turns out, we’re just whiners. We did everything that was asked of us … and when the older generations don’t deliver their half of the bargain, it’s somehow our fault.

Take health insurance. Decades of pressure to lower wages for new hires and cut benefits means that the employer-provided system means that even if you can find a job, it probably won’t offer health insurance. Paying for insurance out of pocket is prohibitively expensive if you’re healthy and coverage is entirely unavailable if you’re not. And if you have a minimum-wage job serving coffee, you’re still getting a chunk taken out of your paycheck to finance a program that won’t be solvent by the time you’re old enough to use it. But any effort to change this system is met with seniors screaming about communists taking away their medicare. And if 20-somethings back a legislative initiative that would help them obtain coverage, they’re slackers living in their parents basements. And let’s not even get into the individual mandate in the health-reform bill that will require the healthy and young to subsidize the healthcare of their older and generally wealthier parents.

Should twenty-somethings who have done everything asked of them their entire lives feel like somebody pulled one over on them? Probably—but bad things happen. And hopefully all those years of education taught us enough empathy not to be vindictive. Call us gullible—but don’t call us lazy or selfish.  If some of us push for a few reforms that could help us succeed even when our parents have dropped the ball—back them, and be thankful that we’re not talking outright revolution.

But most of all, don’t blame the twenty-somethings for their dissatisfaction. When some asshole like Reuben Navarette writes, “We already knew they had a sense of entitlement from the narcissism they exhibit,” I can only think of one response:

Fuck you.

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