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For Some, Arrogance is Bliss

December 5, 2011

3-minute read

This fall, Margaret Wente discovered people under 40. Woot!

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Given her years of pontificating on topics like the environment, public schools, and the glass ceiling, it’s inevitable that sooner or later she manages, even accidentally, to quote or refer to someone under 40. But an entire article focused on young people? Could she be broadening her generational horizons?

How else to explain her column on the Occupiers—or as she describes them, victims of the “virtueocracy – the class of people who expect to find self-fulfillment (and a comfortable living) in non-profit or government work, by saving the planet, rescuing the poor and regulating the rest of us.”

That’s right: Regulating the rest of us. Because didn’t you get the distinct sense that the secret agenda of those young people braving the elements and patiently trying to explain their positions on the environment, human rights, Indigenous rights, inequality, social programs, public space, and corporate influence, was really to land a job that allowed them the option of alternating between “can I help who’s next? and “could you sign that form in triplicate, please?”

Margaret’s finger-wagging about the Occupiers is not only misdirected: it’s a bit… well…rich. However, her “blame the victim” approach (and I don’t have to extrapolate with comments like: “author of her own misfortunate”, “of their own making,” and “if she’d only applied a bit more critical thinking to herself, she might be able to pay the rent”) is vintage Wente. You know: the “maybe you should have picked wealthier parents, now stop telling me I’m privileged” kind of vintage.

Perhaps she’s convinced that her biases about younger, politically progressive people are profound. But she’s not exactly cutting-edge in her disdain for those under 40 who have the gall to expect governments to act in the public—rather than the corporate—interest. In her scorn for young people who challenge neo-conservativism and capitalism—”entitlement-addicts” (although to be fair she doesn’t actually refer to them as entitled in this article—merely as the recipients of a “benefit-heavy entitlement system”)—she has lots of company.

This palpable condescension is even apparent in the definition—yes, there is a definition—of the “Entitlement Generation”: the group born between 1979 and 1994 who believe they are owed certain rights and benefits without further justification. (Although there was no clear consensus on when, exactly, the "Entitlement Generation" actually kicked in--some "experts" suggest in the early 70s.)

As a friend (and a member of said generation) recently exclaimed: “Rights? Benefits? Sign me up!”

And can you blame her? Wages have been stagnant for middle income earners (or have even fallen for the poorest among us) over the past 20 years, household debt continues to rise, and families are increasingly struggling to pay for the basics. But it sure would be handy to have all those entitlements we keep hearing about—rather than sheep—to count as we drift off to sleep at the end of each day.

The thing is, in spite of claims from the particularly well-heeled that anyone under 40—with student loans, a shaky job market, questionable retirement, skyrocketing daycare costs, unprecedented levels of household debt, and uncertain mortgages—is drowning in a sea of entitlement-induced youth- and family-friendly policies and funding, reality belies the hologram.

Politicians prioritize souped-up baby bonuses over sustainable funding for universal, public, regulated childcare.

Schools routinely have to justify adequate investments in education (compared to, say, F-35s or superjails) every time there’s an economic downturn. And even when things are financially flush, funding for schools is often the first to be trimmed in the seemingly endless race to eliminate provincial debt.

More public funding for universities and colleges? Why bother when governments can just continue to download onto families by raising tuition fees, and keep pretending that RESPs—the “help us help you help us” method of paying for higher education--are anything but a subsidy for the wealthiest Canadians? And for those young Canadians who graduate with debt repayments greater than their monthly rent—if they can afford to move out of their parents’ basement—well, that’s just character-building.

Retiring with dignity? Just watch how quickly the Harper Government enacts back-to-work legislation when unions try to protect pensions for new (read: younger) hires.

But all this talk about entitlement makes me wonder: does Margaret Wente worry about being able to retire with dignity and independence? Or struggle with residual student debt while trying to figure out how to make the rent or mortgage payments each month? Or lie awake at night wondering how to pay daycare and other essential bills on time after being cut back to 20 hours a week at work?

Does she ever consider that there is significant irony in her virtual critique of a generation she couldn’t even be bothered to interview in person; one that in spite of looking increasingly lost to economic collapse is filled with people who are still, as Occupy demonstrated, trying to work for a better, more collaborative and equitable world?

And after benefiting from their parent’s struggles, which allowed numerous members of the Wente-cohort to become part of the wealthiest generation to have ever lived in Canada, do they ever pause to consider that there might be something of a contradiction in calling their own offspring, who are facing a significantly less economically secure future, “entitled”?

Perhaps. But I suspect it’s more likely that for many like herself, who from the comfort of their stock portfolios and business class seating prattle on about the so-called “entitlement generation,” arrogance is bliss.

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