Because I'm worth it

Why typical Gen Y's are rife with feelings of entitlement and overconfidence, yet quick to play the victim and often miserable

The United States Declaration of Independence 1776 states: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

Not until relatively recently, however, has ‘happiness’ been the result of extrinsic action (shopping, for instance) rather than intrinsic satisfaction (doing a good job).

The general affluence of the 1980s and 1990s in developed countries allowed discretionary spending to increase. ‘Quality time’ and ‘time for me’ appeared in conversation. Girls were told they ‘can do anything’; ‘you can have it all’ and ‘because you’re worth it’ featured in advertising. Malls developed and shopping became a hobby for an increasing number of people.

During this period, and enabled by the relative affluence, parents in working and middle classes gave their children what they deemed to be better parenting than they had received from their own parents. Increasingly since the end of the Baby Boom (approximately 1964) and particularly since the end of the 70s, parents have typically treated their children as equals, encouraging them to voice their opinions, treating them seriously and celebrating every success. This was a deliberate move to give the children the confidence to be able to compete successfully in the global workplace, and is in marked contrast to the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ attitude of previous generations.

The high level of parenting and building of confidence, in an era of positive tolerance, resulted in huge confidence and an awareness of self-value. Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me, has recorded a 30% increase in students recording above-average scores in the Narcissistic Personality Inventory since 1982. By 2006 two-thirds of the 16,475 college students evaluated nationwide had above-average scores.

Last year Dr Twenge reported that results from four cross-sectional, one retrospective, and four over-time datasets ‘are consistent with higher narcissism among those in more recent (younger) generations. These use three different measures of narcissism (the NPI, the California Psychological Inventory, and a clinical interview for Narcissistic Personality disorder) and occur across several age groups and cultures. She also reported that traits related to narcissism have increased, such as extrinsic values, unrealistic expectations, materialism, low empathy, agentic (but not communal) self-views, self-esteem, self-focus, choosing more unique names for children, less concern for others, less interest in helping the environment, and low empathy.’

Of further note is that underperformance, linked to what has been described as ‘vacuous over-praise’, and reflecting heightened expectations, has increased.

The expectations are formalised at school. A study of college grades in the US reported in 2010 indicated that 43% of grades given are As. The Economist raised this issue in September with an article entitled ‘What drives grade inflation at Ivy League Colleges'. The average grade is now an A-, and professors are on record as saying if they don’t give high marks, enrolments decrease. Some have stated that they give a high grade for the student’s official record and a ‘real’ grade separately.

The overall problem is that children in the most recent generation (known as Generation Y), were raised to believe that it is their right to have everything given to them more than any other previous generation. Their parents fight for this right on their behalf – the helicopter syndrome. The Entitlement Generation has been used as a collective term.

Between 1979 and 1984, the Public Relations Society of America conducted a series of surveys on the American public to determine whether or not there was a growing trend of entitlement being spread throughout society. The results showed that more and more citizens expected institutions to provide for them, while providing for themselves decreased as a necessity. The reports suggested that “expectations beginning to surface at the time might have a moderating influence on entitlement attitudes [in the future].”

Thirty years later, and the effects are being felt in America as well as in other countries like New Zealand. Personal responsibility has diminished as the welfare state takes over. The false expectation of worth and value are also a problem

Professor Paul Harvey from University of Hampshire says that people who exhibit “psychological entitlement” have ‘unjustified positive self-perceptions and are reluctant to accept criticism that would undermine their rosy views of themselves’. Professor Harvey’s studies have measured psychological entitlement and narcissism on a group of Gen-Yers. He reports that they scored 25% higher than respondents aged 40 to 60 and 50% higher than those over 61.

Psychological entitlement affects employment because it obscures an understanding of performance. Professor Harvey’s research indicates that even if they fail miserably at a job, they still think they’re great at it.

The younger generations could be the ultimate in showing the Dunning-Kruger effect: ‘a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence’.

Professor David Dunning, Cornell University, and Justin Kruger, New York University, conducted their experiments in the late 1990s. The first Dunning-Kruger experiments involved undergraduate students who were asked to predict their raw score for the test they had just taken. Students who had performed poorly were found to overestimate their own performance by approximately 30%, whereas top students underestimated theirs.

The Dunning-Kruger effect can be broken by explaining to people where they are going wrong – but that means the person with the ‘psychological entitlement’ has to be able to accept critique…. which is often a barrier. Professor Harvey explains the problem as ‘a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback; younger employees are often very resistant to anything that doesn’t involve praise and rewards’.

Another factor apparent in Professor Harvey’s research is that people who feel entitled tend to take credit for good outcomes and blame others when things go wrong.

The third problem with entitlement is the link with the victim mentality. This is epitomised by the statement from the TV reality programme ‘Benefit Street’ with the clip “I’m the unluckiest boy on the planet”.

Research from Stanford University has shown that feeling wronged results in a sense of entitlement and to selfish behaviour. And the more that entitlement isn’t fulfilled, the more wronged one feels, so a vicious cycle results.

Victim mentality is considered a natural extension of dependency felt during childhood when children must rely on adults for all of the necessities of life. If parents are ‘hard’ a sense of inadequacy can result, and so children seek external affirmation and happiness.

But Professor Harvey says that if parents are soft, affirming that the children are special and great at everything they do, the sense of entitlement is ingrained.

The issues are clearly extremely complex. The pursuit of happiness remains a goal for most people, but happiness linked to external rewards is short-lived. Research shows that people tend to return to their natural state of contentment within a matter of weeks, hence the hedonistic treadmill: as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

Understanding the problems is the first step to improvement, and change will take time. Tough love is required to fit the next generation for their global future.