I am tempted to call the current period in our history the Age of Entitlement. It has been described as a time when individual rights, self-fulfillment and instant gratification take precedence over the good of the community, altruism and perseverance. A book by J. Twenge (2006) calls it as follows: Generation Me: Why today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled—And more miserable than ever before. (New York: Free Press.) It has been said that the philosophical founder of the present age is Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainheadand Atlas Shrugged. She famously said: “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”
If this assessment is indeed true what does it mean for our society? We know that young people—probably more young men than young women—are taking longer to “grow up”, that is, move out of their parents’ homes and find self-sustaining jobs. We know that people—young and old—are spending many hours on the computer, sometimes in job-related activities and sometimes not. These hours may involve genuine connections with friends or even people in need but computer-related pursuits are, I believe, far more likely to reinforce one’s sense of competence and yes, entitlement, in a world which we control.
We certainly cannot blame the computer alone for the rampant selfishness that is so often demanded as our “right” nor can we identify any one single factor as the cause of this curious and complicated phenomenon. Some have pointed to “helicopter parents” who hover over their children and anticipate their every need. Others (and I am in this camp) propose that the tough economic times contribute to young people’s lack of ambition and perseverance. It is a scary world out there and failure lurks around every corner.
In Conversations with God (Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Charlottesville, VA, 1998) Neale Donald Walsch suggests that it is the family connections that we are missing. He states:
You’ve moved away from each other. You’ve torn apart your families, disassembled your smaller communities in favor of huge cities. In big cities there are more people but fewer “tribes,” groups or clans whose members see their responsibility as including responsibility for the whole. (p.36)
If entitlement is a problem I do not have a cure. But I believe that it may be helpful to look at it as a phase, a trend in our society, one which can, quite possibly, move us to a higher plane of civilization. Like the Age of Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century, it focuses on individual liberty, a value toward which humans have been striving since time began. It is important that we respect and honor the individual and his or her needs which have historically been too often sacrificed to the pursuit of some greater cause—be it property or religion or liberty from some reigning despot. The Age of Enlightenment sparked a revolution in 18th century France. Will the current epoch of entitlement spark a revolution? Who knows? In the best of circumstances it will move us toward a higher focus in which the needs of individuals are tempered with the needs of the greater good and the practice of true charity.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.