For Some, Arrogance is Bliss

This fall, Margaret Wente discovered people under 40. Woot!

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Given her years of pontificating on topics like the environment, public schools, and the glass ceiling, it’s inevitable that sooner or later she manages, even accidentally, to quote or refer to someone under 40. But an entire article focused on young people? Could she be broadening her generational horizons?

How else to explain her column on the Occupiers—or as she describes them, victims of the “virtueocracy – the class of people who expect to find self-fulfillment (and a comfortable living) in non-profit or government work, by saving the planet, rescuing the poor and regulating the rest of us.”

That’s right: Regulating the rest of us. Because didn’t you get the distinct sense that the secret agenda of those young people braving the elements and patiently trying to explain their positions on the environment, human rights, Indigenous rights, inequality, social programs, public space, and corporate influence, was really to land a job that allowed them the option of alternating between “can I help who’s next? and “could you sign that form in triplicate, please?”

Margaret’s finger-wagging about the Occupiers is not only misdirected: it’s a bit… well…rich. However, her “blame the victim” approach (and I don’t have to extrapolate with comments like: “author of her own misfortunate”, “of their own making,” and “if she’d only applied a bit more critical thinking to herself, she might be able to pay the rent”) is vintage Wente. You know: the “maybe you should have picked wealthier parents, now stop telling me I’m privileged” kind of vintage.

Perhaps she’s convinced that her biases about younger, politically progressive people are profound. But she’s not exactly cutting-edge in her disdain for those under 40 who have the gall to expect governments to act in the public—rather than the corporate—interest. In her scorn for young people who challenge neo-conservativism and capitalism—”entitlement-addicts” (although to be fair she doesn’t actually refer to them as entitled in this article—merely as the recipients of a “benefit-heavy entitlement system”)—she has lots of company.

This palpable condescension is even apparent in the definition—yes, there is a dictionary.com definition—of the “Entitlement Generation”: the group born between 1979 and 1994 who believe they are owed certain rights and benefits without further justification. (Although there was no clear consensus on when, exactly, the “Entitlement Generation” actually kicked in–some “experts” suggest in the early 70s.)

As a friend (and a member of said generation) recently exclaimed: “Rights? Benefits? Sign me up!”

And can you blame her? Wages have been stagnant for middle income earners (or have even fallen for the poorest among us) over the past 20 years, household debt continues to rise, and families are increasingly struggling to pay for the basics. But it sure would be handy to have all those entitlements we keep hearing about—rather than sheep—to count as we drift off to sleep at the end of each day.

The thing is, in spite of claims from the particularly well-heeled that anyone under 40—with student loans, a shaky job market, questionable retirement, skyrocketing daycare costs, unprecedented levels of household debt, and uncertain mortgages—is drowning in a sea of entitlement-induced youth- and family-friendly policies and funding, reality belies the hologram.

Politicians prioritize souped-up baby bonuses over sustainable funding for universal, public, regulated childcare.

Schools routinely have to justify adequate investments in education (compared to, say, F-35s or superjails) every time there’s an economic downturn. And even when things are financially flush, funding for schools is often the first to be trimmed in the seemingly endless race to eliminate provincial debt.

More public funding for universities and colleges? Why bother when governments can just continue to download onto families by raising tuition fees, and keep pretending that RESPs—the “help us help you help us” method of paying for higher education–are anything but a subsidy for the wealthiest Canadians? And for those young Canadians who graduate with debt repayments greater than their monthly rent—if they can afford to move out of their parents’ basement—well, that’s just character-building.

Retiring with dignity? Just watch how quickly the Harper Government enacts back-to-work legislation when unions try to protect pensions for new (read: younger) hires.

But all this talk about entitlement makes me wonder: does Margaret Wente worry about being able to retire with dignity and independence? Or struggle with residual student debt while trying to figure out how to make the rent or mortgage payments each month? Or lie awake at night wondering how to pay daycare and other essential bills on time after being cut back to 20 hours a week at work?

Does she ever consider that there is significant irony in her virtual critique of a generation she couldn’t even be bothered to interview in person; one that in spite of looking increasingly lost to economic collapse is filled with people who are still, as Occupy demonstrated, trying to work for a better, more collaborative and equitable world?

And after benefiting from their parent’s struggles, which allowed numerous members of the Wente-cohort to become part of the wealthiest generation to have ever lived in Canada, do they ever pause to consider that there might be something of a contradiction in calling their own offspring, who are facing a significantly less economically secure future, “entitled”?

Perhaps. But I suspect it’s more likely that for many like herself, who from the comfort of their stock portfolios and business class seating prattle on about the so-called “entitlement generation,” arrogance is bliss.

7 comments

  1. The expectations of a generation borne of public education being co-opted as political sledgehammer are hardly surprising. Policies like “No Child Left Behind” and Ontario’s “Student Achievement” have removed consequence from education. Directors tell Superintendents, who tell Principals, who tell teachers that student failure is not an option regardless of effort.

    Receiving a diploma or a test score is rated above learning. Success is bred on data where press releases are generated by higher graduation rates and higher standardized test scores. Strangely enough, these never go down during the term of a government. Political parties treat students as hamsters on the stationary wheel of life.

    Such a “no consequence” dogmatic approach to education has resulted a generation of students who have had high school diplomas handed to them. Missed assignments, failed exams: all these could be remedied through 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances. All they have ever been required to do is show up. They expect the same institutionalized ideal to follow them to post-secondary and the real world.

    It’s no wonder that many in the Occupy movement thought that they could achieve their goals by “showing up”. Maybe they didn’t achieve their goals, but in times when previous generations have become jaded into acquiescence, at least “showing up” gets noticed.

    They learned that the paper their diplomas were printed on now lies shredded at the bottom of their cages. They discovered that jobs were unavailable and a career was a mythical creature from a bygone era. They marveled at their parents’ stories of buying houses in their early 20s.

    Everyone brought their own issues and causes. There were no identifiable leaders. Did young people expect too much just by showing up to a rally or living in a tent? Perhaps. But instead of getting their institutionalized message of “show up again” and everything will be alright, the message was “get a job and stop whining.”

    Maybe they do expect better.

    Generations, for the past century, have radically improved on the preceding ones in terms of prosperity and freedoms. Every generation living today has expected at least that much. We run the risk of breaking that streak.

    We’ve trained a group of young people to “show up” and they will be rewarded. Instead, they were at times mocked, attacked, beaten, berated, ignored, avoided and dismissed.

    Does anyone have a right to expect something for just showing up? Probably not. But when it’s all you’ve ever known, and the curtain is pulled back revealing the almighty Oz, I suspect many governments might be trading in their ruby slippers for a few cases of pepper spray in the near future.

  2. Thanks for this analysis. I get tired of critiques/judgments of younger generations being entitled, without an examination of the vantage point of “judgers”, nor the underlying causes of younger generations “pleas”. Well done!
    cheers,
    jude

  3. All three of my children are from that generation and I wouldn’t say one of them is entitled. They’ve all gotten good grades and done volunteer work, and the two older ones are working their own way through post-secondary and dealing (with a tremendous amount of grace) with the pressures of adult life.

    But in fairness, I know where those who talk about entitlement are coming from. It was very frustrating, when raising my kids, not to give in to the pressures around us to pay for them to take every lesson or class they wanted, drive them everywhere instead of expecting them to walk or take the bus, and buy pretty much everything for them without their ever having to lift a finger to help out around the house. That’s what we saw parents all around us doing with their kids, and it was frustrating as hell to clothe our own kids in hand-me-downs, put strict spending limits on birthdays and Christmas, push them to do chores in order to get their allowance (with which they bought all their own clothes and any extras once they hit their teens), and tell them that if they wanted more than that, they needed to go out and work for it.

    I don’t agree with Margaret Wente’s position because I think she makes a lot of generalizations, but I know the people she describes are out there. Where she’s wrong is that they’re not occupying anything, except maybe the bedrooms they still inhabit at home because their parents have never kicked them out or asked them to pay a penny of rent and now don’t understand why their children didn’t grow up to be more responsible. The young people I know who were raised with a sense of entitlement camping out to stand up for something they believe in? Not a chance.

    People of my children’s generation with a sense of entitlement are definitely out there — as are people of entitlement of my generation and as were people of my parents’ generation. But camping out in the cold for months to protest the widening wage gap, environmental destruction, underfunding of education, and so on is not something people of any generation with a sense of entitlement do. People with a sense of entitlement sit in whatever comfort they’re in and criticize those who are less comfortable for demanding something better, not just for themselves, but for everyone.

    They have to criticize, because if the occupiers were ever successful in achieving what they’re demanding (and, btw, I don’t find the demands unclear at all), it might diminish their comfort.

    Can’t let that happen.

  4. People of all generations can be entitled. But it has always been obvious to me that the Conservatives are the true entitlement class. They don’t think about others. They don’t care about science. They have no concern for workers. That’s entitlement.

  5. You took my frustration and anger with the so called journalist, Margaret Wente, and put it into words. Thank you.

  6. Wente’s objective in that article was to paint the Occupy protesters as lazy, privileged students. What is most disturbing are the methods she used to do it – methods which should be unacceptable for a professional journalist at any respectable newspaper.

    After introducing two other young people (whose quotes and bios were obtained by other journalists), Wente presented the third “face” of the Occupy protesters:

    “Then there’s John, who’s pursuing a degree in environmental law. He wants to work at a non-profit. After he graduated from university, he struggled to find work. ‘I had to go a full year between college and law school without a job. I lived at home with my parents to make ends meet.’ He thinks a law degree will help, but these days, I’m not so sure”.

    Ms. Wente apparently couldn’t be bothered to interview any protesters herself.

    So, it appears, she borrowed “John” from the same blog (The Volokh Conspiracy) from which she borrowed other material (the notion of the virtueocracy, what she claimed was a quote by Christopher Lasch) and a quote by Kenneth Anderson.

    Trouble is, “John” wasn’t an Occupy protester at all – you can follow the links here:

    http://mediaculpapost.blogspot.com/2011/11/wente-occupy-protests-and-john.html

    Ms. Wente apparently failed to click through the links which would have informed her that “John” had nothing to do with the Occupiers. His cyber existence (bio and quote) was from a Democratic webpage about new legislation on student loans.

    While Ms. Wente’s “John” was not an instance of fabulism (inventing a character from whole cloth would have, at the very least, required more actual work on her part), the effect was the same – “John” as a representative “face” of the Occupy protesters, was a fiction.

    The Globe eventually acknowledged this with an Editor’s Note.

    It is Ms. Wente’s methods, more than her borrowed ideas, that we should be concerned about.

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