Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Age of Entitlement

On Facebook the other day, my cousin posted a very well-written blog entry that was a meant to be a wake-up call for an angst-ridden twenty-something who had publicly slammed and slandered her start-up’s management, all under the guise of not receiving a living wage. Not liking to take things as second-hand source material (thanks, Ms. Brewer!), I dug further to find the original blog posting. Both are must-reads. But quite frankly, reading the latter made me mad.

When I was this girl’s age, I had failed out of college, and after at one point holding four jobs at once to make ends meet, I was working retail, having started as a sales associate at minimum wage and working myself up to management in three years. That management job was the first time in five years that I didn’t work more than two jobs. And all of this time, I had a college friend as a roommate who was in his medical residency working more hours than I was for less pay. Neither one of us was flush, but neither one of us claimed to be entitled to any more than we were getting (despite the fact my roommate was quite certainly providing considerably more value, in his job and to society, than I was).

And a funny thing happened when I was twenty-five. A co-worker at the housewares chain that I was working at said to me, “You know what? Had I stayed in school instead of taking that warehouse forklift job for $27k per year, I would have graduated with a civil engineering degree and been making more than I am making right now.” At the time, he was in his mid-30s. It was the wake-up call that I needed.

I called my parents, and they drove with me to New Jersey to pay the $500 I needed to get reinstated at my alma after having stopped showing up for the four classes I was enrolled in while working full time five years earlier. I had a very narrow window: I needed to take two classes that I had failed, Art History and Statistics, to get re-enrolled and I need to pass them. But one dean did the math for me: I had tanked my GPA so hard that last semester that, to be able to graduate, I needed to get an A in both classes in summer school. In New Jersey. While working full time. In Rhode Island.

In case you’re not familiar with the journey, that is a four-hour one-way trip, on a good day. And when you’re commuting through NYC, there are very few good days. A good friend of mine from college offered me free lodging on his couch a 30-minute drive from school, and I commuted for eight weeks. Monday morning I drove to NJ for class from RI, stayed at my friend’s and studied Monday through Thursday, then got up at 4am on Friday and drove back to RI to work three straight 12-hour days, on those weekends on which Talia is so aghast that people have to work. And this was just to get reinstated. In my last week of classes, my car was broken into and all of my books and notes were stolen, mere days before exams. But I got my As. And after all of this, I still had another full semester of classes I would have to take in RI in night school to finish the classes I had left. That dean who helped me do the math also was kind enough to waive one credit of residency requirement, allowing me to take all remaining classes out of state, and half a credit of course work. She said if I could do all of this, I deserved that much.

But I didn’t deserve it: I earned it. There’s a difference. And when I finished another eighteen months of night classes, I had earned a degree. A degree that honestly, I shouldn’t have even been pursuing ten years earlier straight out of high school; I wasn’t ready. But once I got it, I didn’t just walk into some office and demand a better job with better pay. I got on board with every temporary employment agency in Boston that would have me and finally landed a receptionist job at a real estate management office. Making $11/hour. A job that I would have to take the train to, pay parking for the day (and some days for towing fees when all of the parking spaces were filled), but would allow me to be in town to interview for other jobs. And I was a darn good receptionist for the time they had me there. And fortunately, one of those temp agencies got me placed in a job back in RI. A good job, with good pay, and good people.

You know what good pay was? Exactly what I had been making when I left the retail management job. Only there, that was the ceiling. Here, I was getting in on the ground floor.

There seems to be a lot of entitlement out there, a lot of sentiment that there is no ground floor anymore. Talia’s post is littered with such sentiment. That you can walk in and just be handed everything you want without, you know – earning it. And that doesn’t just mean putting in your time answering support calls. That means showing that you are reliable, can work as part of a team, contribute consistently, perform well, and most of all: deliver value. I had jobs where I didn’t do some of those things, and you know what? I got fired too. I don't get the impression Talia was fired because of her post, I get the impression her post was because she knew she was considered a malcontent, that her termination was coming and was writing a big 'fuck off'. Reading Talia’s post, I get the picture of someone who feels like because she writes memes and tweets in her spare time that she should have the job someone else is already doing because she somehow understands the whole world of internet startups. The trouble is, she doesn’t even bother to understand how her own world works.

She has home internet service, a cell phone plan, and lives alone in an apartment in the second most expensive metropolitan area in the U.S. She complains about only eating from a bag of rice, while posting instagrams of being out partying with expensive bourbon. She moved cross-country, racking up a mountain of debt, to live near (not with) a dad she had little to no relationship with. She took the first job that she was offered, agreeing to a wage that she now claims is not a living wage.

And here is the problem with the concept of a ‘living wage’. This young lady’s idea of a living wage is something that will pay for her to drink fancy drinks, in the most expensive of cities, while living alone in a $1,300 apartment. Oh, and she doesn’t want co-pays for her insurance either and thinks her employer should pay for all her meals, even when she’s not working. This does not sound like a working employee, this sounds like a free-ride college student. Someone who does whatever they want, whenever they want, has everything paid for in one lump sum, and has no worries in their ivory tower.

And the key piece that is missing from her diatribe, and is all the more important, is how she got her degree. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of student loan debt, scholarships, or any work activity that would have paid for her schooling. Just freelancing and tutoring and an English Lit degree under her belt. This is what a ‘free’ education looks like. This person spent four years (conservatively estimating, given her age) in school, seemingly did not contribute to its costs, and is now unable to function as an adult because she never learned personal responsibility. Apparently, that wasn’t among the courses at her alma mater.

And that is what makes me mad. Here is someone who wants more value than she is providing, has received more value than she can capably transmit to an employer, and is now saying she deserves more?

Earn it.

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