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« Grossman in context | Main | The Other Side of Sweet 16 »

Monday, December 18, 2006


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Tom Bremer

In fact, entitlement, as I have argued elsewhere, is characteristic of modernity--it is neither recent nor limited to young people. I draw attention to this in the distinction I make in my own research between pilgrimage and tourism (see for instance my article “A Touristic Spirit in Places of Religion,” in the recent book Faith in America: Changes, Challenges, New Directions, edited by Charles H. Lippy (2006), pp. 38-39). The German sociologist Max Weber hypothesizes that capitalism in the modern world rises out of Protestant (especially Calvinist) theology and practice. I now think that he is at least partially right, and that what Calvinism provides to our economic system is a sense of entitlement that urges capitalists and consumers alike to get what they deserve, whether from merit (hence our profession of faith in meritocracy) or from election (in the Calvinist "chosen" sense). Without a sense of entitlement, western economies would have had a much tougher time of pulling themselves out of the slough of feudalism. So, we can thank Calvin's ideas about predestination for much of the progress of the modern world.

But of course, if you think that entitlement is a "growing generalizable attitude" of the current generation of young people, well, you're ENTITLED to your opinion, right?

--Tom Bremer, Dept. of Religious Studies, Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee


To John: I only disagree that self-esteem should be meritocratic, unless we're talking of some sort of holistic meritocracy that involves more than grades and income. Actually, I should probably assume you're suggesting something broader.

Also, I think this ties to the interesting discussions we've had on class. Why should these kids believe in meritocracy? It doesn't reflect the reality of their class - if you're getting this kind of a party at 16, you're also likely to have a sizeable trust fund at 25 or 30. I think their sense of entitlement is reflective of a bigger social condition - the growing gap between rich and poor and decreasing class mobility.

And, really, can't a sense of entitlement help you get ahead? I was raised a doctor's kid, pretty upper middle class. But my dad grew up on a farm, and he (for the most part) would smack us down pretty fast if we acted like entitled rich kids.

That put a boundary between me and the country club/future frat boy set. Belonging to that set almost requires a sense of entitlement. But it also teaches you the social skills and social codes needed to get ahead in upper and upper middle class society. That's particularly essential in business, I think. Not seeming somewhat entitled can seem culturally odd, even judgmental, in that culture.

To Tom - is it just a coincidence that I recently emailed asking you about grad programs?

I don't think John's position disagrees with your meritocracy point. But you'll have to sell me on how "election" leads to "entitlement." Logically it's obvious, but my understanding (which may be wrong) is that the work ethic has historically led to some very "unentitled" behavior, like Puritan asceticism. And it seems like Calvinists mostly worried about how they could know they were "elect" rather than basked in its assurance.

But that's probably a tangent on this thread.

Janet Edens

I was raised a doctor's kid, pretty upper middle class. But my dad grew up on a farm, and he (for the most part) would smack us down pretty fast if we acted like entitled rich kids.

Me, too, Ben. We were close to middle of middle class, but we were never allow to feel superior because of what we owned.

I had a long comment and lost it whilst attempting to close a pop-up window ... so I will limit myself to this:

I do agree the the entitlement meme is more prevalent than it used to be. And why not? We've spent years trying to bolster kids' self-esteem. It's another example of going too far in the opposite direction. It is absolutely true: People who feel lousy about themselves aren't good for society. But people who think the world owes them because they breathe aren't either.

And let's not forget simple bad parenting. Discipline is hard. It's even harder when the authoritarian ideal gives way to the authoritative. It's transitional, I think. We have this (relatively) new respect for people as individuals regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity balanced with the need to impose rules for social good. It's tough.

Especially since you can't wash their mouths out with soap or beat them anymore. And locking them in the tool shed is right out.


To be blunt about it, those of us in our 40s now come from a generation with a lot of entitlement in it, and I think a lot of it is commercial. How many people do you know who are deeply in debt? How much of that debt came out of the middle-class consumerist sense that "I work hard and I deserve this, dammit!"

Our economy is BASED on entitlement, at least if you judge it by watching commercials. Americans invented consumerism, which is both a social movement and an economic system, and it's so ingrained in our thinking now that to suggest a life that rejects it seems somehow radical. Consumption is one of the assumed goals in an American life-well-lived, and with that comes the sense that what others have you also deserve. Since most people can't afford that kind of lifestyle, the solution is revolving credit... revolving in the sense that a treadmill revolves.

We got rid of all our credit cards, which just makes us all the more attractive to credit card lenders. The come-ons they send us are lessons in entitlement: most talk about getting the "things that you need" or the "life you deserve." And they're pushing this to younger and younger Americans, too, knowingly offering credit terms that people will never be able to pay off.

I went to financial aid night last week at the high school and the speaker pointed out that the average student coming out of a state school today graduates with $17,000 in debt. His point? That it's not so much. "The car you drove here costs more than that, and what will that be worth in four years?" he said.

Excuse me, but the car I drove to the event cost me $5,200 more than four years ago. This is not to say that everyone should drive crappy old cars -- but it is to say that we need to teach our children that STARTING their adult lives $20k in debt is a recipe for indentured servitude. Easy debt, constant consumerism and a sense of personal entitlement? It's a death sentence.

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