Entitlement Today

 Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

In the 1990’s Entitlement was a worldwide phenomenon, mostly visible in the sphere of work.  At that time, Entitlement, the sense you were owed what you got, was the result of absolute job security irrespective of someone’s performance.  The gestation of absolute job security began from several different motives including, for example, Britain’s desire to reward WWII veterans for their heroic service, and in the Communist and Socialist states it derived from the value to each according to their needs.  In the United States absolute job security was driven by the demands of powerful unions or by the desire on the part of very powerful corporations to give employees what they wanted in order to prevent unionization of these employees.

But while the origins could differ the outcome was the same everywhere:  employees became the most visible and thus significant stakeholder. Employee’s desires were fulfilled by automatic annual wage increases and expanding benefits that included financial and health protection after retirement.  This happened despite low levels of performance by individuals and low levels of productivity in industries or individual corporations.

Because receiving was no longer tied tightly to contribution or performance, Entitlement was the feeling or assumption that you got what you got because it was owed to you, i.e. because you had worked for one company for the whole of your career or because you had given the company your greatest loyalty or because you had given the company the best years of your life.

Entitlements are given out as a matter of course or law to all members of certain demographic groups or to a nation as a whole.  Because they are given to everyone they are not perceived as rewards.  Thus, they do not generate feelings of gratitude for the givers by the recipients. In other words, Entitlement does not generate gratitude.  Instead, it fosters greed.

While a small percent of the working population became much too comfortable with showing up but not working, i.e. they make personal phone calls, read the paper, go through the motions, watch porno… the great majority have no awareness that they are not working because they keep busy, but since they’re not contributing to the mission of the organization, they are not working. “Work” means you made a contribution, in Entitlement it often means you showed up.

Today’s Entitlement reaches far beyond employment; it encompasses people’s universe of Self.  It combines the old idea of Entitlement that you don’t have to DO something to get something because you’re getting depends on WHAT or WHO you are, i.e. a 20 year veteran of the company; someone who put the company first before family; or your child, your partner, your parent, your friend.

Today’s Entitlement is largely based on the value of ME: because I exist, because I’m an individual, because I’m special…I am owed. Thus, The Me Generation.  Self-preoccupied, self-absorbed – narcissistic and hedonistic. This led to the feelings of irresponsibility as righteous.  Decades of a rising tide of financial well-being among an ever-widening middle class following WWII led to the conviction that The American Dream of upward mobility was really possible for everyone who worked hard and was responsible.

In turn, that created widespread generalized optimism and the feeling that change meant progress and progress was always a good thing.  Americans felt great. A rising tide was lifting all boats. This led to the assumption that everything is affordable and achievable.  You can be “rich” living largely on credit.  You can bet on the come. Some people were essentially corrupted into gambling based on borrowing and the assumption good times would always continue.

All of these factors led to generalized tolerance for, or envy of, people’s self-indulgence. After the great recession of 2008-09, the lack of jobs and money developed into class war for the first time in American History.

Today the cult of individualism far outweighs commitment to community – whether it’s an idea like one’s country, or one’s actual community of institutions, or one’s extended or nuclear family.  Vastly increased geographic and social mobility reduced the importance of ties of responsibility or connection. For some, being responsible is seen as selling out to arbitrary conventional rules of mutual obligation AND the pleasures of being irresponsible are idealized on TV, in fiction, and especially in film.

Relationships involving Narcissists and those who feel Entitled are always one-way streets; self-preoccupation is all about ME! Those relationships last only as long as the Getting is Good.  Normal people, who have a full complement of feelings and who are in such relationships should and do feel betrayed and alone.

Being honest with yourself and aware of how your words and behaviors affect others is a critical base from which to create a relationship of Us. Self-knowledge is difficult to achieve because it takes courage and confidence.  But that is the condition that sets us free to trust and be trusted and, in the long run nothing is more valuable or satisfying than that.


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