SAN DIEGO - Jean Twenge has a knack for chronicling the obsession that many Americans have with, well, themselves.
In 2006, the psychology professor at San Diego State University wrote a highly informed book on what she called "Generation Me" - Americans in their teens, 20s and 30s who display very healthy levels of self-esteem even if they haven't accomplished much to earn it.
Now, with fellow psychologist W. Keith Campbell, Twenge has co-authored a new and timely book: The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
Twenge thinks the entitlement mentality might have helped cause America's economic crisis.
"People were very overconfident about what size mortgage they could afford, and the same thing with the bankers who were giving the loans," she told me. "Everybody was overconfident and didn't anticipate the downside, and so when the downside came, it was worse than anyone imagined."
And Twenge has seen it on college campuses. She recalled the student who asked her to postpone a final exam because it interfered with his plans for a birthday outing to Las Vegas.
And in the work force. She heard from one person who runs a company in Minnesota who said it was not uncommon for employees to call into the office and say they were too tired to come to work and needed to go back to sleep.
In their book, Twenge and Campbell list the factors fueling the entitlement mentality: parenting, schools and a culture that build self-esteem by giving everyone a trophy; the Internet, where all can shape their images, post their opinions and be their own publicist; celebrity culture and media, which teach Americans that they're entitled to be famous; and ready credit, which, Twenge says, "allows people the fantasy of getting something and not paying for it right away."
What is the harm of all this?
"Narcissism is absolutely toxic to society," Twenge said. "When faced with common resources, narcissists take more for themselves and leave less for others. They tend to be greedy and take too many risks. They feel entitled, don't think about consequences and think that everything will turn out great."
And when things don't turn out great - as with a flailing economy? Often times, when confronted with adversity, failure or even mild setbacks, narcissists fall to pieces.
Lately, I've been collecting my own examples of entitlements - many of them offered by readers.
There was the teacher of eighth-grade honors English who said she was floored by the fact that about one-third of her class thought it was unfair that she gave them a pop quiz. According to the teacher, the students insisted that she tell them about the quiz ahead of time and divulge exactly what was going to be covered. A quiz maybe, but there's not much "pop" to that.
There was the chef who reported that young workers in his kitchen give him strange looks when he asks them "to do something like wash both the inside and outside of a pot or pan or to merely complete a job the best they can." They're more apt to say: "That's not my job!" The chef's response is to tell them that - speaking of jobs - it might be time to look for another one.
Then there was the custom designer and contractor, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, who insisted he only hires employees with "very high standards of workmanship." The man said he had tried "sometimes desperately, to hire only native-born young men," and pay them well - $12 an hour for workers with limited or no skills and as much as $35 an hour for those with more skills. However, he said, native-born workers tended to demand the top wages even when they lacked skills, complained about the pace of jobs and missed work. It was, he said, as if they felt entitled to a job. Now, the contractor said he much preferred "first-generation immigrants, legal and otherwise," who often have an "astounding work ethic, are willing to start at the bottom, will do the job as directed without complaint and will work until the job is done regardless of the hour ... offering up a fair day's work for a fair day's pay."
We need to listen to these stories. They illustrate another consequence of Americans foolishly thinking themselves entitled to things they haven't earned: It puts them at a terrible disadvantage in a global marketplace that is, all the time, getting more competitive and less willing to suffer fools.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist at The San Diego Union-Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2009 The San Diego Union Tribune