The most poisonous word in personal finance today is entitlement.
You can barely have a conversation about money today without this term being used to delegitimize someone as selfish, greedy or privileged. Millennials are accused of being entitled, and so are baby boomers and seniors.
People talking to people is how personal finance is best taught. That's why this column is written as a continuing conversation about money between me and readers. But if we're going to have a productive discussion about money, we need to be able to hear what others are doing and not freak out if we disagree.
Back in the day, entitled was a word that meant a basic right to something. If you paid into the Canada Pension Plan and retired, you were entitled to retirement benefits. But in the past several years, the word has devolved into the idea of wanting things that are not deserved.
Economic anxiety explains a lot of our touchiness about money. Seven years after the global financial crisis, we're as stressed and uncertain about our finances as ever. We're protective of what we have and resentful of what others have that we don't. We have little tolerance for the financial complaints of others, and so we slam them as being entitled when they speak up.
I've seen this in the acid comments that older people make in response to columns I've written about the financial issues faced by young adults. Lazy, entitled millennials – they want what they either don't deserve or haven't worked hard enough for.
Then there's the entitled boomer, spoiled by massive gains in the housing and stock markets that were driven by the pure luck of being born at the right time. The entitled senior is seen as being fawned over by politicians and supported by multitrack government programs. How dare anyone in these groups speak out about their financial issues? A lot of people simply don't want to hear it.
The entitlement slur is part of the snappishness you see in the comments made about people featured in media coverage of their unique financial stories. The CBC's website has in the past year carried two stories about dynamic young adults – a young man who paid off his mortgage in Toronto at the age of 30 by living frugally and a couple of thirtysomethings who achieved financial freedom by forgoing home-ownership.
I've written similar columns in which people tell their personal finance stories, and there are always thoughtful comments debating the merits of what's been said. But they're often overwhelmed by angry attempts to discredit the people being written about. The handiest putdown of them all is that they're entitled.
Social media have contributed to the new usage of the word "entitlement." It's a versatile term for judging people and feeding our online outrage. Anyone asking for more than what we consider to be their fair share is entitled and should be shouted down.
But the real driver of our entitlement problem is the upset caused by the most confusing and frustrating years in personal finance since the Great Depression. Low interest rates have all but eliminated the return from saving, and we hear a lot these days about rates going negative in some parts of the world. The Canadian stock market is pretty much where it was eight years ago. Raises and bonuses have shrunk or disappeared. We're saving less and borrowing more.
Our big success story is housing, yet even here we slime each other with accusations of entitlement. Millennials are entitled because they want houses rather than condos, and homes in the city instead of in far-off suburbs. Entitlement in older generations is seen in the way they talk about their pensions and the value of their homes.
Personal finance isn't just about issuing lectures on what to do with your money. It's also about investigating how people are managing their financial lives and reporting worthwhile stories such as wealthy renters and mortgage-free millennial homeowners. You're not being questioned, mocked or challenged if you do things differently, so there's no need to counterattack. The point is simply to get you thinking about people who do things differently.
Our best financial literacy tool is a civil discussion about personal finance. We're all entitled to that.