I Don’t Feel Entitled, I Feel Guilty

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.


42 Comments / Post A Comment

honey cowl (#1,510)


ugh I feel a lot of this.

AitchBee (#3,001)

(throws self away)

RachelG8489 (#1,297)

YES. They did so much for me and so far I haven’t been able to afford to even attempt to grab the check when I go out to dinner with them- instead, I’m emailing them to ask them to pay for a dentist appointment next week because I can’t afford it.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

Yes all of this yes.

Penelope Pine (#2,808)

These are the kind of parents who never let their kid’s ass touch a toilet seat, saturate them with antibiotics and then wonder why they get the flu 8 times a year.

Sometimes a little exposure to stress/adversity/the other half is good for you.

sea ermine (#122)

@Penelope Pine I’m not sure what trying to help your kid succeed academically has to do with children who have a lot of health issues?

AitchBee (#3,001)

@seaermine @Penelope Pine Or what antibiotics have to do with the flu…

CubeRootOfPi (#1,098)

@seaermine @AitchBee I think what Penelope Pine is saying is that the author’s parents focused so much on making sure that she’d be successful that it ended up hurting the author more than it helped. The health/germ issues were an analogy.

(Not staying an opinion, just explaining)

Penelope Pine (#2,808)

@AitchBee basically an analogy proving that too much sheltering makes a person weaker, and that knocking all the problems/threats out of a child’s way is not necessary beneficial in the long run.

Wow, this is great.

jr (#3,151)

I think a lot of the issues with recent graduates not being able to find jobs is because they are picking the wrong majors. When you are 18 you don’t know what you want to do and what way the job market is going. No one really tells you that unless you want to be a lawyer, teacher or get lucky you shouldn’t be a history or poli-sci major. Or that it takes a lot of hard work to have a career in writing, art, philosophy etc.

The days of just “doing whatever makes you happy” are done for the most part. Technology, medical and math are your best bets for the foreseeable future if you want a stable career without worrying about finding a job because they are plentiful.

sea ermine (#122)

@jr I dunno, I know don’ts of people who majored in not so useful majors who have jobs (plenty of jobs just require a bachelors degree but not a specific one) and people who studied things like engineering or chemistry or math who are out of work.

I don’t think recent grads have enough information on how to prove that they can do the work required of a job. They may have great grades and internships but didn’t have relevant work experience (and don’t know how to make the work experience they do have look relevant on a resume). Or maybe they spend time after college looking for internships (that don’t pay) because they don’t realize that there are temp jobs in their field that are easier to get, will pay them, and will give them relevant office experience to put on a resume.

Or maybe they grew up in a town that is dying or doesn’t have the industry they studied for (and not just for people who studied writing and art) and didn’t realize how hard it would be to apply for jobs from out of state.

I’ve also seen a lot of crappy resume writing and crappy cover letters. I work at a university, a very prestigious university with a highly rated career services department, and have read through some of the resumes and cover letters that students send in when applying for work study jobs. These are all students with millions of accomplishments and awards and internships and 4.0 gpas and while the resumes are well written in the sense that there are no typos and that everything is grammatically correct and well worded…they don’t do a good job of showing how the student would be the best person suited for the job. And at this level it’s not an issue, theses are work study jobs and they aren’t hard to get. But I can see why a brilliant and hardworking recent grad could have a hard time getting a job even when doing everything right, just because they don’t know how to prove to someone who doesn’t know them that they will be good at a particular job.

Also, all of the advice these people are getting comes from people (their parents, teachers, advisers) who aren’t applying for entry level jobs in the current job market and may not be up to date on how the job market has changed since they were 22.

vanderlyn (#2,954)

@jr I’m interested in the author’s emphasis on name-brand education versus practical training—of acquiring a social signal that is perceived to have value, rather than a demonstrably marketable skill set. In this, it appears that both the authors’ parents and the author were a bit short-sighted, and definitely captivated by prestige.

The author’s parents concertedly cultivated their daughter’s life, earned the right to put a Dartmouth bumper sticker on the family station wagon, and then what? Gave each other high fives and took a nap? Like many parents, they probably assumed that the quasi-meritocratic privilege of the Ivy League—the old boy’s network, the superior buoyancy of resumes with fancy names—would smooth everything out. That their work was done. They, along with their daughter, had acquired an expensive and prestigious credential, time to turn off the lights.

So it seems to me that, far from caring about their daughter’s “education,” writ large and philosophical, the author’s parents emphasized their child’s marketability to colleges, under the mistaken and elitist idea that college is destiny. Once they “succeeded,” what more was there to do? Probably just encourage their daughter to “follow her passion.” I wouldn’t feel guilty if I were the author. Her parents fought tooth and nail to lead their daughter to the water. But there was never any water there—it was a mirage, an upper middle-class echo chamber. And no one was standing there, her parents included, to tell her, “your degree is a piece of paper; your skills are what make you useful. Learn useful skills.”

kthkskddn (#2,342)

@jr Have you ever considered that there are people who really, really shouldn’t be doctors or engineers or technicians or applied mathematicians because *those are not their strong points*? Most people who liberal arts do not expect to become career philosophers. They want to be able to think analytically, write critically, and be able to participate in the world. And those are skills that are, yes, marketable, and can be developed intensely with a liberal arts curriculum.

I majored in English because “it made me happy,” but also because I was good at it. I never intended to become an English professor, but I knew I would be better served by having an arsenal of skills that played to my strengths. I know that I am better at communicating and analyzing than I am at, say, solving equations or rotating tires. It makes me happy to pursue things I am good at! And, yup, I’m gainfully employed. For me, anyway, it paid to play to MY strengths.

jr (#3,151)

@kthkskddn my point was so many people are majoring in fields that are declining and are projected to continue to decline so it is going to be harder for them to have a career as opposed to just work. Everyone I know that majored in computer science or mathematics have good jobs as opposed to many friends who aren’t using their business degrees or history etc.

Penelope Pine (#2,808)

@vanderlyn “an upper middle-class echo chamber” is the best imagery/description of this phenomenon I have heard ever.

moserine (#3,673)

@jr I agree with you. I majored in philosophy and am now retraining my nights and weekends in Computer Science. The skills overlap–I was just too lazy to do engineering in college and wanted a better GPA. I wish I had a at least a few courses that were based on developing a few marketable, practical skills to use after college. (Or that someone told me that what makes you happy is great, but you need to do x to help yourself out later in life)

jessjess (#3,543)

@vanderlyn I think it’s worth pointing out that for people in the author’s parents’ generation, a name-brand education WAS a ticket up and out. Prestige and the ivy league have been, for generations, a fairly reliable ticket up. It’s only in our recent economy that this has proven untrue, or only true to the point where the job market becomes saturated and valedictorians are a dime a dozen. I don’t know that we can fault parents for not being able to predict that future.

CubeRootOfPi (#1,098)

The “I’m so proud of what we did” line is so…wow. I get that the parents felt as if they were doing the best thing for the author, but it sounds more like the parents should have put aside their own issues and regarded the kids as people independent from them.

That being said, I do feel for the author – unemployment/underemployment is rough (have always seemed to graduate during recessions, so I’ve been there). There are a lot of entitled people in their 20s, sure, but it seems that it’s more a function of immaturity in some rather than the generation being overly demanding. As the author says, a lot of it has to do with luck – the economy’s hurting people no matter the field.

Great article. Really hits home for one of the segments that’s been hit hardest by the financial crisis.

Liz81 (#3,672)

I just want to say to the author that this won’t be forever. When I was 24, I had a M.S. in physics and was working just part-time as a barista in a town I’d just moved to, trying to figure out how to get a job that would give me health insurance. It took me four or five stressful years of piecing together part-time work, getting gradually better jobs and meeting people and getting experience. Now I’m 31 and I have a job I love, that I find incredibly fulfilling.

I felt like I was the only one in a position like that, but almost everyone feels lost in their mid-twenties, not sure what they’re doing with their lives. You’re in good company. Hang in there.

Georgex (#3,512)

@Liz81 Exactly. I’m 41 now, I graduated college in 1993, at the end of another major recession. Jobs were so scarce! I was a barista in the afternoon, and worked the lunch shift at a pizza place. I remember my mom coming to visit me and wanting to buy me nice clothes and having a freakout in the department store: I have nowhere to wear nice clothes! I’ll be a server forever! There are no more opportunities for my generation! But it wasn’t true. The economy improved, I got a job in my field.
This kind of experience is cyclical, sure, tied to the economy. BUT, it is also a part of growing up. In the best of economies, young people will struggle. You don’t start off your career at the top. Most everyone has to do years of grunt work before they get to do the cool, and well paid stuff.

moserine (#3,673)

Don’t worry. It’s just your first experience of failure. For me, I had a healthy dose in high school and it helped me rebound, more resilient than before.

Give yourself time–and don’t be so hard on yourself. Being hard on yourself doesn’t particularly help (as I’m sure you know). I’ve had an excellent mentor who is Asian who has always said to me that guilt is a very particular form of American laziness. Feeling bad gives you an excuse not to work at something you believe in, whether you succeed or fail.

Hopefully not being irritating — but one thing that could be useful is being grateful for all the things you were born into and provided with, but recognizing that there are zero guarantees in this world, and anything else anyone told you is a lie.

It’s amazing, our generation–we don’t seem to realize that it’s amazing we have anything at all, and are therefore constantly worrying that we don’t have ‘enough’.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

Personally, I don’t think that success is solely a matter of luck. Yes, luck plays some part, but planning plays a significantly larger role. My understanding of the writer’s story is that her parents force-fed knowledge into her without allowing her to fail or work things out on her own. As a result, she appears to just passively wait for things to work out or fail.

Her parents sound like very good people. They worked hard to overcome personal obstacles and obviously wish the very best for their children.

Although the writer won’t pay attention to what I say, I don’t think she needs to feel guilty. She has done her best, just like her parents did their best. She doesn’t need to live her life as a trophy toward their parenting efforts. Based on the article, I’m confident that her parents are proud of her.

awk (#840)

@WayDownSouth Agreed. Also, I’d like some actual detail about her career goals, her education and maybe why she thinks that, at 26, she needs to be a fully-established career woman. Also, she’s publishing a book? How bad can her life be if that’s the case? Reading through her website, I get the impression that she’s cultivating this personality as a way to promote her book.

deepomega (#22)

@WayDownSouth Speaking as someone who has been very successful: Nope, it’s a lot of luck. Like 50%, probably.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@deepomega I think it was a golfer who said “the harder I work, the luckier I get”.

In this case, I’d add planning and foresight, but the general philosophy is the same.

As I noted above, luck plays a part, but planning and hard work are more important imho. The writer said success is entirely due to luck and now you’ve estimated 50 percent. I’d say it’s about 10-20 percent, but we’re disagreeing at the margins. A person who says it’s entirely based on luck is avoiding the personal responsibility needed to get positive results.

SD (#3,679)

I can’t help but agree with you, @JR. Like the author, I too graduated in 2008… and my current “success” (no school loans, no credit card debt, and a salary I can live on) is not a measure of luck but of a combination of hard-work AND PRAGMATISM.
Since I think we all need to admit we enjoy talking about ourselves, a few words about my background. When I started college my only goal was to work for the UN and make the world a better place (seriously)… be the guy who helps draft international law (does that job actually exist?). But shortly after reality began to sink in… along with being somewhat disillusioned by political science and that most of it had to do with writing theoretical papers based on voting statistics… I realized that very few companies would be willing to hire a 20 year old with a BA in Poli Sci. Could I have persevered on and gotten my masters and prayed to find a job in DC? Possibly… but I didn’t, I decided to double major in Business, got a degree in Finance and had the full backing of the business school’s career center when it came time for graduation. I found a job I enjoy, was able to pay off my school loans and as of the current moment (knock on wood) have never been in credit card debt which I couldn’t pay off within the month.
While similar to your parents, mine put their full backing into my education and did whatever was within their means for me to succeed, they also taught me that I needed to rely on myself, and while certain pursuits could be life-long passions, I needed to also make sure to have back-up plans and realistic expectations.
When it comes to identifying the biggest “problem” with our generation… in my mind it seems to be a lack of realistic expectations and pragmatism. I think we’re as hard-working as any other age group but just as the housing bubble was over-inflated so are our expectations…
The point of this drawn out comment is that, even in a recession I don’t believe luck has anything to do with success. In my mind, luck is a completely random event that could happen to anyone and does not have any type of correlation to anything. The fact that most engineers and business majors were able to find jobs, while other, less technical degree holders have had a harder time in the recession is not a random occurrence, but a very basic display of what types of degrees the current job market is more interested in.
And no, I do not believe we need to give up on the Arts/Social Sciences, but instead make sure that those pursuing less technical degrees should be realistic and pragmatic about their job opportunities after college… and make sure that they have some type of back-up plan whether it be a trust fund, a possible teaching career or a second major to fall back on.

Georgex (#3,512)

@SD You don’t believe luck has ANYTHING to do with your success? I think what you want to say is don’t depend on luck — be practical and make smart choices. That’s good advice.
But I’ve got to point out that you are lucky. You’re lucky you were born in this country. You’re lucky you were born to parents who had the means to support you. You’re lucky you were born to psychologically healthy parents who could encourage and love you without smothering you. You were lucky to have an interest in, and a predilection for, finance. Etc, etc etc.
Luck may not be everything, but dude, it counts for a lot! You have to admit that.

SD (#3,679)

@Georgex Fair point, to some extant you’re correct, there are plenty of kids in this country who do not have things I would like to one day consider the “basics” (a way to meet their basic needs and at least one parental figure to be supportive of them and education) and in that respect, I am incredibly lucky. On the other hand, I disagree with the “who could encourage and love you without smothering” and the bit about a predilection for finance…. The former because it opens up a whole other can of worms about the correct type of guidance to provide a child which is so far away from the point I was trying to make that I don’t want to discuss it (and also on a personal note, my mother is queen of the smoother), and the latter, because it’s not about a predilection for Finance or engineering or technology or whatever… it’s about looking at the market, seeing what’s getting hired and then adjusting yourself accordingly whether it be to change a major or to have some type of backup plan… and realizing that if you don’t make the adjustment (especially in college where it’s a bit easier to transition your “career”) there will be consequences.

smartastic (#3,056)

I graduated in 2002 and I still feel this, sharply. Shit.

But if it makes ya feel any better, you sure sound entitled.

kthkskddn (#2,342)

@Henry Chung Easterling@facebook Wow! Thanks! What a helpful piece of insight. I am sure no one in the author’s position has heard this one.

The reason that millenials aren’t working is that the US economy is not creating enough jobs. We’re in a prolonged economic slump in which job creation has been very low, and entry-level workers are suffering the effects of that more than people who already have experience and skills. I hate all of this victim-blaming, and I’m shocked that it seems to have convinced so many people–I mean, don’t they read the paper?

@speedingmotorcycle But…But…But if only she had chosen something “practical” like a STEM major then she would be gainfully employed thus have found her passion on life!

ImThraxx (#1,237)

The weird sort of meta-layer here is: by writing a book about feeling like a failure in your mid-20s, and fleshing it out articles like this, you’re creating a personal project. Whether it materially succeeds or fails, you’re at least doing something with yourself. So the farther you go with it, the more you complicate your own narrative that you’re not doing anything important with yourself.

Since you’re writing a whole book about it, it seems like you’re intested in becoming the chronicler of guilty-feeling underperforming twentysomethings. And that’s a fine thing to want to be, and you’re well on your way! So therein lies the paradox!

Man, I’ve got to wonder about the reading comprehension levels of some of the posters here. did they just red the first paragraph and then hit the comment button? the point of the article is not that success is all up to luck. The author’s point is that she believes the exact opposite: that it’s all up to her, 100 percent – maybe 150 percent.
It doesn’t sound like her parents coddled her or protected her. They gave her all the opportunities they could and she grabbed them all with a white-knuckled passion. Her problem doesn’t seem to be a lack of drive or ambition or sense of entitlement. If anything, it seems her problem is that she’s set the bar of self-defined success so high it’s not reasonable that she (or anyone else) could reach it.

P.S. ImThraxx – Yeah, I’m picking up on the meta of becoming a success by chronicling one’s failure.

You haven’t made a bad choice, you’re in a shitty economy. This isn’t guilt, it’s shame. Like Brene Brown’s definition, [ Guilt says: “you’ve done something bad” or “you’ve made a bad choice.” Shame says: “you are bad.” There is a big difference between “you made a mistake” and “you are a mistake.” ]

Marc_D (#3,692)

I think there are two kinds of luck – dumb luck when good fortune falls in your lap with no effort on your part (finding a suitcase full of cash on your way home one day) and the kind of luck that comes from taking a risk (betting on black in roulette). The former is purely random, but the latter is directly proportional to the risks we take. If our bets pay out, we are “lucky” and the bigger the bet, the more “lucky” we are. This applies directly to life – we cant have the latter form of luck without taking some risks.

In other words, if we do not take risks (finding a new job, going back to school or other life change), than we dont allow luck to play a role in our life. By playing it “safe” at a stable job, luck becomes irrelevant.

“In boom times, luck is less necessary and more plentiful.”

Ach. Since I went to uni, and started out as a Comp Sci major, this actually resonates with me. How many people did I know who washed out, only to make big bucks anyway? Well…at least, for a few years.

In hindsight, I wish I’d joined them; when I saw all those Dotcoms hiring the doofuses I went to school with–and as a doofus who washed out of a state uni, I saw people I could call “doofus” doing this–and saved everything I could. $100k for writing really bad C++? If I could do it again, yes, I would have done it in a heartbeat until the inevitable bust, then gone on to do more enjoyable things.

And to think we already recognized tuition and student loans as being out of control then, only to watch it balloon over the last few years! And all that work only to have to hustle to take jobs from Boomers, X’ers, Y’ers, and so on. People who envy your generation have no reason to, and it’s a shame it is the way it is.

Doctor D (#5,085)


Never let anyone tell you that you feel entitled. I could have written your entry myself, and I am 62. I got laid off in 2009 and there are just no jobs for me in my field. Your parents may have put up the money to get you a great education but you did the work and you got the degree. My parents put up money for me too. But guess what? I got a PhD to make my parents proud of me but I never earned what my father did or had the same level of benefits, even though he never got a PhD. My mother is now 90 and she still lives on my father’s retirement.
I do not agree with trying to get my children into private schools and then Ivy league colleges as your parents apparently did. But that is a different issue. There is nothing wrong with all the great state universities we already have, when there are jobs and commitment to American growth.

The answer is not you. That is blaming the victims. The answer is what they said years ago: “it’s the economy stupid,” or years before that, “where’s the beef.” And that is not luck. The ruin of the economy has been deliberate by those who want to feed off of American prosperity and not invest in it so that it continues to grow.

The only answer is political action so that America can actually live up to its great democratic traditions.

The very idea that a person with a masters degree should feel guilty that she cannot get the good job promised with education shows where we have arrived. Are you supposed to work at Wendy’s? I know a woman age 63 with a high school diploma that has worked as a paralegal for 40 years, and still does because she has all those years of experience. So why hasn’t she retired to let younger people into the workforce. It is obvious; she cannot afford to retire. She will work till she dies at her desk.

It is not you and it not a problem of “feeling entitled.” It is “the economy stupid” and that is no matter of luck–it is a matter of public policy.

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