Hillary Clinton is on to something when she says young people have a sense of "entitlement." This may seem a little rich coming from an icon of the Boomer generation, and she retreated from her remark that young people think "work" is a four-letter word after her daughter Chelsea scolded her for saying it, but you don't have to be an old fogey to see that youth isn't what it used to be.
A puzzled old fogey asked Marlon Brando's character in "The Wild One," the 1953 movie about a motorcycle gang invading a California town, "What are you rebelling against?" Brando's character replied: "Whatcha got?" This was the ethos of the '50s rebel, trying to figure out how to rebel and find something to rebel against. Two years later James Dean expressed similar angst in "Rebel Without a Cause," whose title said it all.
The '60s changed all that. Hillary and her Boomer generation wrote the book on rebellion, against parents, war, Puritanism and the "the greatest generation" that won the war so their children could "make love, not war" without the distractions of work and responsibility. Now even Hillary decries children growing up in the "culture that has a premium on instant gratification."
Their toys feed their appetites. They walk down the street with a telephone pasted to their heads, talking to their friends. They turn on their Blackberries and iPods to listen to their favorite music with the other ear. They play video games that maim and kill without getting their hands dirty. It's a phenomenon for the globe.
An exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, "The Youth of Today," eschews the theme of rebellion because the popular culture absorbed what 1960s rebels said they wanted -- sexual liberation and entertainment 24/7. They can rock around the clock. But they're the insiders now, and that creates problems for everybody. Summerhill, a famously permissive "progressive" school founded by A.S. Neil in England in 1927, encouraged children to recite Shakespeare to the cows, enjoy communal nude swimming and anything else that occurred to them. Now Summerhill has introduced, of all things, rules. Once the do-as-you-like school without any discernible structure, Summerhill is changing because the culture is no longer giving kids anything to rebel against. "What we see in society is often a lot of spoilt brats," Zoe Neill Readhead, the founder's daughter who now runs the school, tells the London Times. "Children now come from homes where they have been overindulged."
Americans agree. More than 80 percent of Americans polled by the Sacred Heart University Polling Institute say American young people feel more "entitled" than they did a decade ago. Asked what careers they most wanted for their children, 9 in 10 said medicine, followed by teaching and starting a business. (Their children would likely offer very different answers, but that's work for another survey.)
Frank Furedi, a British sociologist, says society sends a message that the pursuit of happiness is more important than the work ethic, and that creates problems. "Happiness has become the buzz word of our times," he writes in the London Daily Telegraph. He notes that the BBC has turned "The Happiness Formula" into a six-part series. "Politicians, educators, celebrities and cultural entrepreneurs frequently insist that happiness is the solution to our problems and that we have a responsibility to be happy."
That, it seems to me, is looking at motivation upside down. John Stuart Mill famously observed that happiness is the wrong goal: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." A sense of entitlement is a little like happiness, an unearned emotion, which is why it often coincides with the breakdown of the work ethic. "Happiness" is more easily achieved through hard work. The opposite of hard work is sloth, and lazybones can't be happy because he spends so much time trying to avoid what he doesn't want to do. Instant gratification is an addiction, casting the seeker of instant gratification in the thrall of demanding more, more, more.
"Today's emphasis on feeling good reflects the fact that the individual self has become the central focus of social, moral and cultural life," writes Furedi. "Feeling good" becomes an escape from civic virtue and the demands of community life, where hard work, sacrifice, altruism and commitment are antithetical to immediate gratification. A late education is better than no education at all, but Hillary obviously finds small consolation in the fact that it was her indulgent generation that put into play what she now rails against. Life can be a tough schoolmaster.