Jessica Berry, Deseret News

As the worldwide economic downturn begins to hit home, parents who are used to paying for everything from private music lessons to soccer team fees to cell phone bills to college tuition may have to explain to their children — some for the first time — why they can't continue doing so.

Reactions will vary, but one thing is certain: Many of those 3 to 30-somethings won't take the news well, even in the context that the cutbacks are necessary for the good of the entire family. Dubbed "Generation Me," a 2007 poll done by the Pew Research Center of young adults 18 to 25 showed 80 percent believe "people in their generation think getting rich is either the most important, or the second most important, goal in their lives."

Young people in American culture have largely bought into an "entitlement" mentality, according to Jean M. Twenge, associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, whose research on young people over time has brought her to this conclusion:

"I see no evidence that today's young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Instead ... young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves. This is not an attitude conducive to following social rules or favoring the group's needs over the individual's."

Twenge details why she believes today's young people feel so entitled to "have it all" in her recent book, "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before." Rather than focusing on the good of the whole as paramount, like the Greatest Generation that laid the foundation for their prosperity, today's young people have "never known a world that put duty before self. ... This is a generation unapologetically focused on the individual, a true Generation Me," she writes.

She uses research to bear out her claims, with data from 12 different studies on generational differences involving 1.3 million young Americans born during the 1970s, '80s and '90s. So how much does family influence and parenting play a role? "Many of the studies find that when you were born has more influence on your personality than the family who raised you," she writes.

And Twenge doesn't exempt herself from the characterizations she uses, because she's part of the age demographic she writes about.

"Since Gen Me'ers were born, we've been taught to put ourselves first. ... Television, movies and school programs have told us we were special from toddlerhood to high school, and we believe it with a self-confidence that approaches boredom; why talk about it? It's just the way things are. This blase attitude is very different from the boomer focus on introspection and self-absorption.

"GenMe is not self-absorbed; we're self-important. We take it for granted that we're independent, special individuals, so we don't really need to think about it."

With examples of corporate greed and the "me first" mentality now more visible than ever as CEOs of failed companies try to explain themselves to Congress amid news of their lavish spending and salaries, it seems young people are simply following in the footsteps of those they have been told are the ultimate in success.

"Materialism is the most obvious outcome of a straightforward, practical focus on the self," Twenge writes. "You feel entitled to get the best in life: the best clothes, the best house, the best car. You're special; you deserve special things."

She told the Deseret News that whether young people will actually change their mentality toward entitlement in light of hard times depends on how long the economic downturn lasts and the individual personalities of those dealing with it. If the pain is relatively short-lived, she said, "then you'll just get a much harder (mental) collision between expectations and reality. It will be harder for young people out in the working world," many of whom are used to changing jobs easily and expecting instant gratification.

But if things are severe for a decade, she sees the possibility of adjusting entitled expectations. Still, "it's very hard to adjust those once you're 18 or into your 20s. Some adjustment has to happen, but people can't throw it all out the window. It's hard to make that large a psychological change. Even if there's an adjustment, materialistic desires won't go away, even if the reality isn't there."

In fact, it is that entitled focus on self that Twenge believes has created the current economic meltdown. And that kind of narcissism isn't limited to CEOs, she said.

In a book she's co-written with another researcher, which is scheduled for publication next year, she found the young people surveyed not only acknowledge their narcissism but justify it by saying, "we have to be, because the world is so competitive." Twenge finds that not only as scary but self-defeating.

"Narcissism does not help you succeed. Narcissism is what got us here (economically) in the first place. It's the aftermath of people being overly confident, buying what they couldn't afford, greedy lenders who didn't care about clients, people taking on more debt than they can really afford."

While few would deny that self-centeredness and greed are largely responsible for current economic woes, Florida State University business professor Wayne Hochwarter agrees with Twenge when it comes to the root cause of the entitled mentality. His recent study shows "much of it has to do with society and the way parents raise their special little angels, the pace of life with MTV and video games. Young people have a bit of a struggle with delayed gratification," not because they were born that way, but because their parents conditioned them, he said.

Materialism is the most visible manifestation of entitlement, but many young people who watched their parents' challenges as well, and came to the conclusion that "I'm looking out for myself. I saw mom and dad stay with the company for 38 years and I'm not going to get laid off like they did."

Hochwarter said while many adults focus on the negatives and the lack of true physical labor many young people were spared, he sees college students being "a lot more similar to other generations than different. To some extent think this whole entitlement stuff is a way of ruffling the feathers of the older generation." And attacking one's work ethic is the answer, he said.

"We're going to talk about how the younger generation is easing through life and older workers are busting it. Sure there's a bit to the entitlement mentality, but every generation has had their stuff. In the '60s it was being rebellious, in the '70s it was doing drugs, in the '80s we were materialistic."

He sees some evidence of self-centeredness, but, Hochwarter said, "it's not as big a deal as I think some think it is. I see more similarities (between generations) than differences." He lauds the technological ability of young people and said employers would do well to put their skills to good use rather than trying to stuff them into the same mold that fit their baby boomer parents.

While the Pew poll showed how a majority of young people perceive their generation when it comes to the place of wealth in their lives, some teens say they're painted with that same brush unfairly.

Alex Harris, a teenager from Oregon who co-authored a book with his brother, Brett, said young people by and large aren't being challenged or trusted to use the skills they have. The authors don't perceive themselves as entitled, he said, but as being vastly underchallenged.

Their recent book, "Do Hard Things," describes how their parents were the impetus behind their desire to "rebel against the low expectations of today's culture by choosing to do hard things for the glory of God." The "rebelution" they are leading on the Internet began in 2005, when they were invited — at age 16 — to apply for an internship with the Alabama Supreme Court. People there knew of the boys' online advocacy — www.TheRebelution.com — for doing hard things, and they were ultimately hired for the job.

Harris said labeling young people as entitled is a stereotypical oversimplification, though there is some truth to it. "There definitely is a sense that our generation as a whole has a sense of entitlement due to the fact that our parents have been those who have wanted to make life easy for us.

"The mentality with the whole self-esteem movement in education and parenting has been that everyone is a winner, and never to expect disappointment or failure. That can make young people think things are always supposed to be easy and that they should always succeed."

Having high expectations is a response to that, he said, "but the rebelution movement itself is those who are fed up with that mentality. We're saying no, some things are hard and that's how life is, and we grow and mature and get stronger because we believe in working hard."

Twenge agrees with the Harris boys that a cultural shift has occurred in recent decades that has created a mythical adolescence that should be free from responsibility or hard work — and that they should have everything they want without necessarily working for it.

"Kids didn't raise themselves, they didn't make this stuff up. Sometimes people think I'm blaming young people. That's not the way it happened," Twenge said.


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com