Entitlement, humility, & self-esteem

Among my academic colleagues in the USA, I hear a refrain of grousing about so-called millennial students who, it is averred, perceive themselves as entitled to good grades, exceptions to rules such as number of absences, timeliness, and response to communication, and other “special treatment.” The general criticism goes along the lines of Kenrick Thompson’s letter to the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

… I grew increasingly weary of all the whining, crying, excuse-making, and general lack of attention to responsibility that appear to characterize most of today’s college and university students. I began to sense a growing atmosphere of entitlement among a majority of my students, who apparently believe that society owes them an education. I even endured several instances of students’ insisting they should pass my course simply because they had paid their fees and purchased the required textual materials.

Thompson lays some of the blame for such behavior at the door of college administrators who care more about admission and retention numbers than about the whole package of education, which includes less-measurable outcomes such as personal responsibility and mature problem-solving. The Chronicle has published other essays on related topics, among them these by Elayne Clift and Frank Donohue.

Other critics have blamed Baby Boomer parents for overdoing positive reinforcement so that their offspring do not have to suffer from low self-esteem. These critics suggest the everybody-gets-a-prize approach has watered down the go-get-’em competitiveness formerly considered a hallmark of the individualist American.

The word “entitlement” pops up in a blog post by Toby Woodlief back in 2007, and certainly appeared in conversations I had with colleagues long before that; but there has been much general buzzing that this sense of entitlement is “a Millennial thing.”

What does entitlement really mean? Webster’s has three main entries, the third of which is: “belief that one is deserving of … certain privileges.”

I can therefore say that I believe I am entitled to something, and I can accuse others of feeling that way; but because the word is based upon the subjective sense (“feeling or believing” that one is “deserving of”), can I say for certain that other persons “believe that society owes them an education”? [Note, Thompson does qualify with “apparently”.] No one can independently ascertain what another person believes or feels. My students do not tell me they feel entitled to things.

Could this be just a problem of perception or point of view, as so much inter-generational sniping is? Certainly my generation received criticism for its youthful irresponsibility, though it was of a slightly different kind (drop out of the rat race, turn on, be free). Did we feel entitled to ignore the paths our parents took?

I wonder if the real reason older people feel so annoyed with Millenials is the perception that there’s so little humility among the young. Many people my age were raised with the Protestant ethic formula that one should be humble, and humility has long been valued by the Catholic church, as well. Humility is closely allied with shame, however–and even guilt, to some degree (original sin and all that)–giving us neuroses along with our humility. It depends, once again, on your sociological and personal outlook; I am not suggesting that humility is bad or good, nor that entitlement is bad or good. These are just extensions of feelings people have, of personal and subjective perceptions.

Blaming the young people, or blaming their parents, or blaming the culture, for that matter…none of it helps us to understand or to respect one another. And as fellow travelers on the planet, are we not entitled to at least an initial moment of respect?

A balance might be nice.


I work with 18-year-olds every day, and I enjoy them. This is not to say that I don’t occasionally wish to wring their necks or boot them out of their warm beds in the morning or remind them that I am not here to make them feel good about themselves for no reason other than their uniqueness. It does not dissuade me from doling out Fs when Fs are deserved (or, shall we say, earned) or reminding them, now and again, that most of their annoyances qualify as first-world inconveniences undeserving of hysterical rants.

I try to keep in mind that they are still learning about the world of other human beings.

In time, if they are mindful and observant and lucky, they should discover that the participation trophy for life is life itself–

IMHO   😉


9 comments on “Entitlement, humility, & self-esteem

  1. Rachel Bowman says:

    I’m sort of between Generation X and the Millennials (I’m 32), and I teach Millennials in college as well. I do see a lot of entitlement, but you’re right to say that blame doesn’t help us.


    • Most parents of Millennials are not even “Boomers.” They are Gen X people. And where I teach, at least, many of these ‘entitled’ students are not coming from upper-middle-class homes, so I do not think the claim that they are spoiled by the quantity of material goods that are given to them with ease is valid.

      What is it students expect or feel they deserve? Or is it that they seem to feel they deserve rewards without doing the kind of work we had to do (as Celia suggests)?

      And what makes us feel our work was any harder than theirs is? Maybe it is just a different kind of challenge. –Just playing Devil’s Advocate here; as I wrestle with many of these issues with my students, I am endeavoring to see things from another point of view.


      • “And what makes us feel our work was any harder than theirs is?”

        Another outside-the-box thought: professors were obviously very good students. It is unfathomable to me that someone would, say, blow off a class to go to Disney World. I would never have done that! But I was born a geek, and not everyone was, not now or ever. Today’s students are not that different in some respects; there were students who went to school with me back in the dark ages who were just as . . . uninvested in their studies, they just didn’t become profs.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Rachel Bowman says:

        I wouldn’t claim our work is harder than theirs is. I also wouldn’t claim that my generation is better than theirs–everybody has flaws. But insofar as it is possible to characterize any generation, I’d say millennials tend to feel they are entitled to succeed. Constant positive reinforcement and constant positive visualization means they don’t really know how to fail, haven’t really considered the possibility that they will fail.


  2. Trying to think outside the box myself now. If we professors know that the kids are young and each generation is different, then why do we gripe? Methinks it comes from our own sense of being cheated. We worked hard to get to where we are, and sometimes that’s not even a good place. We were humble, we were responsible, we were timely, and when we see those who are now in the positions we once were “getting it so much easier,” it hurts. What did we work so hard for?
    At the root of this problem is that academia is obsessed with the students’ mentality, with figuring them out: how they think, are they happy, what we can do to make them so. No one seems to put much thought into the other half of the equation: the professors. It is assumed that we are all happy, fulfilled, rich, and secure, as if we still walked around in togas and powdered wigs. But it’s not just the students and their values and behaviors who change with every passing generation. Many (most?) professors today feel just as disenfranchised as the students supposedly feel entitled. A bad job market, low wages, and ridiculous expectations exacerbate the resentment towards the “easy ride” students seem to be getting (in reality, of course, they also have very real problems, like huge tuition fees, debt, work pressures, and their own dreary job markets to look forward to). To wit: if professors were happier, we would be more able to turn that resentment into compassion.


    • Celia, that’s probably true. I do know some happy professors, but I also know some bitter ones–and not just the long-time adjuncts but the tenured folk.

      I enjoy my job but do not get paid well (I do, at least, get insurance benefits). One thing I experience with my job is a form of “compassion fatigue.” It hurts to see young people who are cynical, bitter, dreading or fearing their post-graduation career-hunting forays. Likewise, it hurts to see colleagues feeling the same way.


  3. Celia, good point on the possible good-student geekiness of professors in general…I know students who really want me to help them to write a paper without having to read the book the paper is about. My response is–What? You don’t want to read a book?! It’s a BOOK! What’s not to like?


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