Robert J. Samuelson sees a shift underway in Americans’ expectations:
We are passing through something more than a period of disappointing economic growth and increasing political polarization. What’s happening is more powerful: the collapse of “entitlement.” By this, I do not mean primarily cuts in specific government benefits, most prominently Social Security, but the demise of a broader mind-set — attitudes and beliefs — that, in one form or another, has gripped Americans since the 1960s. The breakdown of these ideas has rattled us psychologically as well as politically and economically.
In my 1995 book, “The Good Life and Its Discontents,” I defined entitlement as our expectations “about the kind of nation we were creating and what that meant for all of us individually”:
We had a grand vision. We didn’t merely expect things to get better. We expected all social problems to be solved. We expected business cycles, economic insecurity, poverty, and racism to end. We expected almost limitless personal freedom and self-fulfillment. For those who couldn’t live life to its fullest (as a result of old age, disability, or bad luck), we expected a generous social safety net to guarantee decent lives. We blurred the distinction between progress and perfection.
Bill Clinton has a pithier formulation: “If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll have the freedom and opportunity to pursue your own dreams.” That’s entitlement. “Responsible” Americans should be able to attain realistic ambitions.
No more. Millions of Americans who have “played by the rules” are in distress or fear that they might be. In a new Allstate-National Journal survey, 65 percent of respondents said today’s middle class has less “job and financial security” than their parents’ generation; 52 percent asserted there is less “opportunity to get ahead.” The middle class is “more anxious than aspirational,” concluded the poll’s sponsors. Similarly, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that only 51 percent of workers are confident they’ll have enough money to retire comfortably, down from 70 percent in 2007.
Popular national goals remain elusive. Poverty is stubborn. Many schools seem inadequate. The “safety net,” private and public, is besieged. Our expansive notion of entitlement rested on optimistic and, ultimately, unrealistic assumptions.
Keep reading at Robert Samuelson: The end of entitlement – The Washington Post.
This is not just a change away from the so-called “entitlement mentality,” it is a kind of disillusionment, a new sense that those utopia goals are impossible. Is this altogether a good thing? Is it being too cynical and pessimistic? Wouldn’t, say, Ronald Reagan agree with Bill Clinton’s formulation, and shouldn’t we still aspire to that? In fact, don’t Americans, in fact, still have that kind of opportunity?