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.