The Age of Entitlement
THE SCENE IS the bar of a private members’ sports and social club. A middle-aged man sits at a table, using a laptop. He is approached by a waitress. She is five foot tall, slim and in her mid 20s. She quietly tells the man that he is not allowed to use the laptop in that bar because it is against club rules. She directs him to a business centre elsewhere in the building where laptops are allowed.
The man argues. The waitress stands her ground. The man raises his voice. The woman insists, smiling as she has been trained to. Finally, the man stands, red-faced and angry and towering over the waitress he yells into her face: “You are nothing to me …”
Two other members rush to the woman’s side and tell the man to calm down, otherwise they will have him thrown out of the club - permanently.
This is a true story.
What laptop man displayed was the sense of entitlement associated with a narcissistic personality. The rules do not apply to laptop man because he knows himself to be different. The rules were made for other people.
I have noticed an increase in this kind of behaviour over the past decade or so. Some people seem to have a sense of entitlement that leads them to think they should be treated with greater respect than other people and given greater leeway, because they are special.
A classic example was the photograph of a car parked with one wheel in each of four parking spaces, in a way that meant all four parking spaces were unavailable to other drivers. The photograph went viral, and the driver’s narcissistic response was: “Pardon me for protecting my pride and joy.”
I have had reason to think about bad behaviour recently, and in a hunt for well-researched data, I discovered Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell’s excellent book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
Twenge and Campbell are Americans, and their 2009 work focuses on America at a time when MySpace had a greater impact on ego than Facebook, and Snapchat did not exist. (That was just nine years ago: it is startling what can happen in social media in less than a decade.)
Narcissists, they explain, think they are better than everyone else in social status, good looks, intelligence and creativity. But they are not. “Measured objectively,” Twenge and Campbell say, “narcissists are just like everyone else.”
Even so, they say, narcissists see themselves as superior, special, entitled and unique. They also lack empathy and tend not to have emotionally warm, caring and loving relationships, even though they may have a trophy partner to make them look good.
Coming across a narcissist can be hard work, but it's worth remembering that being a narcissist is hard work too.
First, you have to find some way of coming to terms with the fact that you believe you are special, when all of the evidence suggests you are not. One approach, Twenge and Campbell say, is to use other people as pawns in a game of deception: convincing acolytes that you are fantastic, and then basking in their admiration. Narcissists need their admirers, and they often become lonely and isolated as acolytes wise up and walk out. Finding new admirers to replace them is exhausting.
Second, narcissists are over-confident, which leads them to fail in exams, in business and in life - and they don’t necessarily learn the important life-lessons from the failure. Over-confidence often leads to under-achievement, which can then lead to depression and anger - and they carry that fury out on to the streets in the form of road rage, and waitress-bashing.
Twenge and Campbell say narcissism has risen dramatically in the US since the 1970s, and has spread to other parts of the world too. This is partly because since the 1970s a culture of narcissism has been transmitted like an infection.
Children are now praised and given t-shirts with “Little Princess” or “I love me” on them by doting parents. At school, they are given prizes for losing and some parents lobby their children’s teachers for better grades. Students are told to promote themselves and to boast of success. And an industry has grown up around self-esteem and the pursuit of happiness. Everybody is told that they can be anything they want to be. People are told that they can have anything they want.
Taken in isolation, such developments might appear positive: an improvement on the harsh parenting and schooling of the post-war years.
But if you give a child a prize for losing, it robs them of the right to learn lessons from failure, devalues the effort of the person who came first and embarrasses the person who came last because they know they didn’t deserve the prize. If you tell people they can have what they want right now, even if they can’t pay for it, they end up with debilitating debt. And while promoting a child’s self-esteem is a good thing, if not handled carefully it can eventually turn into self-admiration and narcissism.
Narcissism has an impact on everybody because narcissists take more risks than other people: the combination of a relaxed attitude to debt and an appetite for risk, it could be argued, led directly to the financial crisis of 2008.
Social media exacerbates the problem. An underage girl posting sexy poses on-line to win the admiration of thousands of (unknown and unseen) followers is hardly likely to build character, and - as has now been seen often enough - it can lead to feelings of inadequacy, bullying, sexting and worse.
The constant focus on fame and celebrity in the media merely aggravates the situation. Instant celebrity - on reality TV and social media sites - now leaches into traditional news outlets, normalising the abnormal.
Millennials aka “The Selfie Generation”, have often been described as narcissistic. I no longer have much contact with people of that age - and most of the narcissists I have come across have been middle-aged or older - but I have some sympathy for Millennials.
As Simon Sinek says in a 2016 talk, here, Millennials were told by their parents that they were special and could do and have anything they wanted - and then they got jobs, and found that they weren’t special after all, and their parents could do nothing to help them win promotion. As Sinek points out: “… there’s an entire generation growing up with lower self-esteem than previous generations”.
Narcissism is a kind of cultural affliction - like the buying frenzies of the South Sea bubble in the 18th century, or tulip fever in the 17th, which cost people their livelihoods and sometimes their lives. Think of the many teenagers who have been stabbed for dissing - disrespecting - somebody who has done little to earn respect, but demands it nevertheless.
What is worse, those with a narcissistic personality can develop narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is a damaging psychosis in which an individual has one or of a number of characteristics including:
- A need for continuing admiration
- A capacity to exploit others for personal gain
- An unwillingness to empathise with the feelings, wishes and needs of other people
- An intensive envy of others, and a belief that others are envious of them
- Pomposity and arrogance
NPD is on the increase, say Twenge and Campbell, and it is difficult to treat because those suffering from it don’t believe that there is anything wrong with them: it’s everybody else that has the problem. It is, to coin a phrase, 'fake news'.
If narcissism is an epidemic, the cure surely lies in more responsible parenting and education. A return to traditional values, in which boastfulness is discouraged and people are measured by what they do rather than what they say or look like might be part of the solution.
Perhaps it is time children were encouraged to look out into their communities rather than inside themselves. Perhaps it is time we acted in the spirit of John F Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address in which he urged Americans to: “… ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
(How different in tone is Kennedy’s quote from the current President’s tweet: “I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States [on my first try]. I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius....and a very stable genius at that!”)
Narcissism may be on the increase, but that does not mean that every second person you meet is going to be a narcissist; they are still in the minority, and there is work out there for decent people to do in re-establishing traditional values - with kindness, compassion and (dare I say it?) humility.
Further reading click here