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The New Narcissism: A Culture of Entitlement pulls us Apart

Mal Fletcher
Posted 28 March 2011
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Narcissism, writes Jim Wallis in Rediscovering Values, ‘is beyond self-esteem. [It occurs] when children or adults believe they are the exception.’

The British NHS was under fire recently after news reports cited a dramatic drop in the level of ‘soft’ skills provided by staff; skills including empathy, communication and listening.

At root, this is not a problem isolated to the nursing profession. It is a problem related to a deeper societal malaise, which saps our ability to engage with any interest beyond our own.

In his pre-election manifesto, David Cameron pledged to end the ‘culture of entitlement’ which had grown up under Labour and build a ‘culture of responsibility’.

He was, of course, specifically addressing the problem of welfare cheats. Yet this too is just one manifestation of something much bigger.

There is a growing narcissism in our culture; a sense of entitlement that asserts itself in all manner of ways.

It has made its mark on the highest offices in the land: from halls of Westminster, during the MPs expenses saga to the boardrooms of bonus-hungry CEOs and bankers.

Political manifestos notwithstanding, the culture of entitlement is not going to be changed by political means. Societies don’t become less self-indulgent; people do. Culture is the result of individual choices, which become collective norms over a period of time.

Leaders political or otherwise can influence cultural change, and they should – by their example, as much as anything. But they cannot force cultural change.

The lack of empathic skills and basic courtesy cited in reports about the NHS may in part be the result of a growing problem with digital disconnection.

 Our increasing reliance on digital communication devices may be affecting our ability – and desire – to communicate in more personal ways.

There is evidence that while, on some levels, we’re becoming more connected through digital gadgets we may in other ways be growing more isolated.

Twenty-five percent of British young people aged 16 to 25 years have said that they are ‘addicted’ to their mobile phones. They also feel some kind of ‘separation anxiety’ when the phone is lost or taken away from them.

I’ve written elsewhere about the associated problems of ‘absent presence’ and ‘constant partial attention’. Both are demonstrably reducing the capacity of the young – and the not so young – to engage with other people in their immediate environment and to stay focused on lengthy debates.

Back in the ‘80s, the Walkman, with its personal headphones, created a sealed-off listening zone. Back then, though, we had to remove the headphones to talk to someone and we couldn’t watch TV or movies on the go.

Nowadays, we carry entire movie theatres in our pockets. We can effectively seal ourselves off completely from the madding crowd.

Digital communications technologies have brought great benefits; not least the new forms of mass collaboration they’ve engendered. People of diverse backgrounds are bonding together to bring about all manner of radical change, most recently in the world of global politics.

Celebrating the benefits of new technologies shouldn’t blind us to their potential pitfalls. The most dangerous is their capacity to turn us into digital zombies who’re happier operating in the cybersphere of Second Life than in real life.

Digital gadgets are changing our social behaviour, yet they’re not the sole reason for the growing streak of narcissism in our culture. Part of it is generational.

Employer surveys have revealed a high level of dissatisfaction with young Millennial generation employees. Among the major reasons cited for this discontent is the self-absorption of the under-30s.

For them, a sense of entitlement is a by-product of hyper-nurturing during childhood. Few generations in history will have been pandered to or so well protected, perhaps overprotected.

When the first group of Millennials arrived on the scene, entire toy warehouses were replacing humble toy stores.

Bookshops started to devote entire floors to tomes about children and child-raising. Complete book series were designed for children; series that made their authors almost instant billionaires.

Child-raising gurus appeared en masse, telling parents how to actualise their child’s inner potential, often before the child could even walk. It was Abraham Maslow for toddlers.

At home, Millennial kids were hyper-organised by their parents, to ensure that they didn’t waste a moment of the time available for their intellectual enrichment. Outside the home, they were expected to be in view of responsible adults everywhere and at all times.

They were surrounded with CCTV cameras on almost every block, at least in the densely populated urban areas.  

Given all of these influences, it’s hardly surprising that more than a few of this young adult generation find it difficult to be anything but self-absorbed.

According to a 2006 study, narcissistic personality traits among US college students have risen as fast as obesity since the 1980s. One in four students showed above average narcissistic personality traits, a 30 percent increase since the early ‘80s. (1)

Yet for all the talk about the self-absorption of the young – much of it well-founded – they’re not the only ones with a sense of entitlement.

In fact, I wonder whether my generation, the ubiquitous Baby Boomers, didn’t set the new gold standard in self-absorption, daring our children to raise the bar further.

Arguably, one of the key factors in bringing about the recent Great Recession was the sense that we, who should have known better, could spend beyond our means without consequence.

Boomers were the first generation to be labelled ‘teenagers’. For the first time in history, there was a widely used, special designation for that period between childhood and adulthood.

Suddenly, being a beyond-child, almost-adult became a thing of pride, even liberation. Teen movies, teen hobbies, teen fashions and perhaps most of all teen music, all conspired to make us feel that we were the exception to the norm and the usual rules didn’t apply to us.

As we started to move into middle age, things that were once considered privileges – things like larger properties, expensive vacations and faster cars – came to be seen as entitlements.

So ingrained has this sense of entitlement become that, even post-recession, spending is seen a form of recreation or emotional therapy rather than a way to meet needs.

Once upon a distant time, having a credit card was in itself a privilege to be earned. Today, plastic increasingly replaces cash as our default method of exchange.

Unlike a wad of cash, cards do not shrink as we spend more, so we lose sight of the ‘weight’, the value of the things we purchase – and their real cost.

What’s more, we often use consumerism as a way to flaunt our social status, in much the same way as billionaires build longer and longer yachts to outdo one another.

In this respect, technology has only played to our worst impulses. As Wallis perceptively writes, ‘Facebook… has created an unprecedented number of ways to say “Look at me!”.’

Meanwhile, the rampant celebrity culture feeds a sense of entitlement across all the generations.

Celebrities no longer endorse products, they’ve become the products and marketing has become a vehicle for social engineering.

With the compliance of the mass media, marketers reinforce the idea – a false one – that celebrity is available to everyone. It says that the type of success that comes with minimal talent or effort is available to everyone.

This obsession, this epidemic of celebrititis, requires a level of self-obsession that would have been considered monstrous in earlier times.

Of course, the desire for selfless altruism is also still very much alive in Britain today. In the midst of our worst recession in 60 years, people gave more to the 2009 Red Nose Day charity appeal than at any time in its history.

Yet, in the wake of post-recession austerity measures, we now have less resource with which to practice the altruism to which we aspire. 

If we’re wise, we can use the aftermath of recession to reflect on these things, readjusting our priorities so that entitlement is not our default position. This is not simply an exercise for the young; it’s a worthwhile exercise for us all.

(1)     The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, by Jean Twenge, PhD and W. Keith Campbell, PhD.

What’s your view?

Is society becoming more narcissistic today?



Keywords: narcissistic | culture of entitlement

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