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Our Generation in the Nation of Takers

In the question of government entitlement programs, there seems to be one consensus: the next generation will have to fend for themselves. The demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has done the math and concluded, “The U.S. democracy has decided to mortgage its tomorrow for a more comfortable retirement today.” Millennials, like myself, will not see entitlement benefits if the United States continues on its present course. The question that plagues me after reading Eberstadt’s new book “The Nation of Takers” is whether money will be the only problem handed off to our generation. Monetary problems are painful but manageable. A deep-seated sense of entitlement could cripple our culture. Nation of Takers And if the commentaries on the Millennial generation are any indication, this sense of entitlement is exactly what we’ve inherited. Called everything from “trophy kids” to, unimaginatively, “Generation Entitlement,” the older generations do not like what they see in new students and workers: a lack of loyalty to the job, negotiating for flexible work schedules and higher pay and an expectation that companies will adapt to them, not the other way around. Millennials are not the first entitled generation, though. Eberstadt delivers a constant stream of data to reveal how Baby-Boomers and Gen Xers have given in to entitlements of their own: the participation rate for males in the labor force has plummeted (down 15% since 1948), entitlement payments have soared (a 12-fold increase since 1960), and nearly half of all American households now accept transfers from the U.S. government (a 20% increase from the previous generation). William Galston, who wrote a dissent to Eberstadt’s book, still recognizes these changes as a moral issue that reflects “myopia or (more bluntly) generational selfishness.” Simply fixating on how entitled—and indebted—we all have become will only produce cynicism, not solutions. For those we must turn to other defining characteristics of the Millennial generation. Neil Howe and William Strauss, experts on generational studies, composed a list of these traits, among them highlighting Millennials’ cohesive communities, respect for authority and a drive to achieve. In addition, the doting upbringing accused of fostering entitlement in Millennials also deserves credit for instilling a confidence in our ability to change things for the better. Recently, this confidence has been misplaced in government. Even now, 41% of young adults are satisfied with the way things are going in the country—compared with only 26% of those over 30. They have placed their hope of an egalitarian ideal on the shoulders of government, and even with more than half of graduates under 25 unemployed or underemployed, young adults appear undeterred in their convictions with Gallup reporting the same 2-1 ratio of 18-29 year olds supporting Obama in this time around. To reverse the current trends in entitlements, the social-mindedness of the Millennial generation must turn from government to community. Placing the burden of caring for ourselves and our neighbors on government may ease our problems today, but tomorrow we will find the problem to have grown even more difficult and complex. As Eberstadt notes, America was built on “a hotbed of civic associations and voluntary organizations,” not government intervention. Our best hopes in government pale in comparison to the real impact we can have when we follow one, simple rule: love your neighbor. The end of the entitlement programs may be a foregone conclusion, but the battle for America’s character rages on. So long as government coddles our generation, entitlement will only continue to grow. On the other hand, a principled, fair-minded commitment to restricting the entitlement programs could remind Americans that if we don’t care for each other, nobody will provide a safety net. Maybe this is just the naïve certainty of a Millennial talking, but a nation of takers will not long survive if our communities become defined by a rebirth of charity.