In the age of entitlement, a chorus of 'gimme mine'

The Argument

Today, the U.S. is beset by 'the religion of obligatory whining.'

Books

January 12, 2003|By Judith Schlesinger | By Judith Schlesinger,Special to the Sun

Gimme Mine" was the official anthem for the dot-com boom, and still echoes wherever people expect dividends without investment. Drug companies aggressively market the belief that every physical or mental limitation can be fixed with a pill, and rake in billions when we buy it. Ever since learning lost its value as a worthy end in itself, it had to be made fun and easy; today's parents need the dazzle of games to sneak reading and math skills into their children. A musician writes a popular book called Effortless Mastery, based on the premise that you can't execute a wrong note. People buy gas-guzzling vanity vehicles and slam gargantuan homes on tiny plots, distorting whole neighborhoods (but not their own views), then complain it's exhausting to furnish all those rooms (one family's reported solution: using their spare "great room" as an indoor skate park for their kids).

After years of gorging on fast food, a customer sues the franchise for not explicitly warning that it wasn't good for him; someone else wins after spilling their too-hot coffee, which she'd been cradling in her lap while driving. The state pushes gambling with a catchy theme song that disguises the gimme as altruism: "If I had a million dollars, I would buy you a house."

Initially, Sept. 11 offered the temporary illusion that we'd outgrown all this narcissism. The catastrophe merged us in grief and pride and jolted us out of self-absorption. But that great, cleansing flow of compassion couldn't last -- like a flash flood, it altered the landscape, but not the ground. It wasn't long before people were finding ways to make money from the disaster, straining their personal victimhood to grab a moment in the spotlight (or a check from the Red Cross), and finally diluting the concept of hero to include everyone associated with the event.

Now some families are complaining because their victim compensation -- already as unprecedented as the calamity itself -- doesn't sufficiently reflect the earning capacity of the person they lost.

However did the United States get to this sorry place? The entitlement surge draws much of its power from resentment: at the packaged, overdubbed teen idol-du-jour who gets rich shaking her belly-button ring, the athlete who makes more tossing balls for a year than a busload of dedicated teachers can make in five, the CEOs who plead cluelessness after looting shaky companies and decimating pensions (increasing the widespread conviction that everyone else is getting away with something, so gimme MINE!).

The baby boomers, pickled in self-indulgence at an early age, have spilled it all over their children. Famous for resisting authority, now this time they're up against the Big Ones: aging and death. Their supreme boomer confidence newly tinged with panic, they're still swatting at anything that denies or diminishes their self-image, stampeding for Botox and other chemical correctives in the smug expectation of eternal youth, potency and a full head of hair.

Their world is full of breathless entitlements, served up like a dessert bar in Paradise: all you can eat, with every calorie removed. Lose weight while you sleep! Get the loan you deserve! Had an accident? We'll help you profit from it! A quick online search for "self-help" books delivered 29,617 options for sale, including the two best sellers Think and Grow Rich and Body for Life: 12 Weeks to Mental and Physical Strength. Psychotherapy is being phased out in favor of coaching, which claims to offer increased fulfillment without all that tedious introspective stuff. And with each new promise of reward without effort, a big fat Greek chorus warbles in the background, singing the song of entitlement, "Gimme mine!"

One management consultant blames the entitlement epidemic on America's long run of prosperity. In Danger in the Comfort Zone: From Boardroom to Mailroom -- How to Break the Entitlement Habit That's Killing American Business (AMACOM, 255 pages, $16.95), a corporate cookbook with little general appeal, author Judith Bardwick remembers when companies could afford to tolerate dead weight and didn't hold people accountable for their performance.

"We stopped judging," she says, but in fact we haven't: We've just streamlined the process by making it shallow, slapping preprinted labels on new data as they zoom in and pile up. While E-Z filing is one way to deal with information overload, it corrodes our capacity to evaluate below the surface.

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