I Don’t Feel Entitled, I Feel Guilty

by Janet Mackenzie Smith

Success is a matter of luck. Right place, right time, right economy. Serendipitous opportunity begetting more of the same. It’s also nose-to-the-grindstone hard work and relentless ambition, but, without luck, that exertion might amount to nothing, no matter how inclined we are to believe otherwise.

You succeed, you thank luck, but you’re secretly patting yourself on the back. You fail, you blame luck, but you’re secretly self-flagellating. We are not the masters of the universe we imagine ourselves to be. We take full credit when we shouldn’t and take on guilt and blame when our actions have not made us complicit.

I know about luck because I am a once-promising 26-year-old without a career — the over-parented, over-educated, under-employed, “entitled” millennial that trend pieces love to wax on about. Some say coddling has made me lazy and weak, akin to a hot house tomato, only able to survive in a controlled environment. Others describe me as self-righteously inert, mired in smug indignation about my inability to carve out a meaningful adulthood.

But, I don’t feel entitled. I feel guilty.

I don’t want something for nothing, I want accolades or absolution. I am not too self-satisfied to submit to job tedium. I’m overburdened by expectation and my anxiety to have real professional work snowballs as a result.

My mother and father dedicated themselves entirely to the mission of giving parenting their all to insulate their kids from bad luck. Insofar as it was in their power, my brother and I would be well-adjusted, well-educated, well-rounded. We would be resilient. Vacations were educationally-oriented. Even the shortest car ride provided a chance to Socratically impart knowledge. Expensive summer camps came before new clothes. My parents even forced their middle-class income to accommodate exorbitant private school tuition to send me to Dartmouth because an Ivy League degree was another way to immunize against diseased circumstance.

While my parents’ dedication to my academic and extracurricular enrichment seemed to be my birthright, their devotion to parenting stood in direct opposition to the way they themselves were raised. Alcoholism shredded family cohesion on both sides as far back as their memories go. My grandparents were consumed by their own problems and failed to provide encouragement or support for their children.

My mother’s academic prowess earned her merit scholarship to business school, which led her to shatter more than a few glass ceilings over the course of her career. Yet, her parents never commended and all but discouraged her bookishness. My father hurdled serious learning disabilities to become the first in his family to attend college. Yet, his father belittled his pursuit of higher education, taking it as a personal affront, an unforgivable one-upmanship. My parents forged their futures on their own and then together, all the while looking forward to the time when they’d become parents that would honor their children as opportunity’s ultimate tabula rasa.

On the day I graduated from college in 2008, my mom hugged me tight and said, “I am so proud of what we did.” A master’s degree and three years of over-worked and under-paid paralegaling later and I fear that those are not words she would utter today.

My parents do not blame me for my inability to become what a 26-year-old should be: a bona fide adult complete with a job that offers decent pay, health insurance, and a ladder to climb. Having also graduated into a deep recession, my parents understand me more than anyone else. After all, they’ve been to this particular rodeo. It was one of the reasons they put so much into parenting, in order to someday avoid watching their children squander their hardest working years in dead end jobs, barely scraping by and failing to establish themselves.

The extent of luck’s influence waxes and wanes. In boom times, luck is less necessary and more plentiful. In our post-lapsarian fiscal climate, luck is more important and subject to resource scarcity. But as it turns out, accepting failure as the result of factors outside our control is just as tall an order as giving kismet credit for success.

And so, I feel incredibly guilty about all I’ve been unable to accomplish in light of all that’s been done for me. Guilty of wasting the tremendous effort, investment and hope put into me by my parents. And because I’ve never been anything but supported and encouraged, if I fail, then I was never capable of success.

If my demographic displays smug disbelief at our fate and appears to earn the pejorative “entitled,” consider the possibility that our ugliness is part of an ungraceful attempt to mask the guilt-stricken panic we feel at the thought of never again having anything to write home about.

Janet Mackenzie Smith is the author of the forthcoming GENERATION SPECIAL.

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