That Sense of Entitlement

Monday’s post on “Free Riding” got quite a set of responses, with comments scattered here, and across the social networks, a fair number of retweets and shares onward, and the like. As an author, seeing something you’ve written get up on its legs and take off is gratifying.

Today I’d like to continue the theme, by looking at entitlement.

Robert Ballantyne, who commented at length (thank you!) on his experiences as a consultant, talked in his remarks about the kind of reactions you get in a meeting. The employees of the firm that may or may not hire you all have security: their paycheque will come on schedule, their benefits will be there when they need them, and so on. Yes, they look at the consultant’s proposed fees and gag on the number. And, as Robert pointed out, in a very good year he’s lucky to work eighty days, and he finances his benefits out of after-tax dollars from those eighty days: the number is the size it is for good reasons.

Still, the employees feel entitled to gag, because they compare themselves to it, and do for the consultant what they do for themselves: that number multiplied out for a whole year.

I remember having a similar conversation during my time in British Columbia (where Robert is based). A client — we had done business repeatedly — now wanted me to lower my rates substantially. “We’ve given you a lot of business, you know — and no one here gets paid that.”

By “here”, I later learnt, they meant “in this market” quite as much as “in this company”.

My response was to start putting papers back in my bag and generally cleaning up, with a smile on my face.

“Err …”

“No problem”, I said. “I’ll just take the gig in Ottawa. They’re willing to pay an extra hundred an hour, and that’ll make up for the inconvenience to me and my family of living in a hotel for six weeks”.

“Err …”

“I would really prefer to do your project. Not only is it more interesting, but I like sleeping in my own bed, just like you do.”

I did get the work. But it has always got me thinking … this was a company that would have hired a person from New York or London and paid two to three times what I was charging in a heartbeat. Apparently, because I could be to their offices in thirty minutes, I couldn’t possibly be entitled to a competitive income. This even though they knew I had recently been in both those cities, working.

That sense of what I’m entitled to, and what I therefore think you’re entitled to, has a lot to do with envy.

No matter how much I would say, over a coffee, how much I appreciated being able to work in my own community — how much it meant to me to be at home instead of on the road — and how I was willing to earn less to do so, they believed (thanks to living in cubicle farms that didn’t change from one year to the next) that the life of the itinerant consultant was somehow exotic and fun. That, in turn, needed to be punished.

“If I’m not enjoying my work, you’re damn well not going to enjoy yours, either.”

There’s a lot of focus on people claiming entitlements in politics. Headlines blare in large type about “waste” as we hear of Premiers getting routine upgrades, or Ministers getting thousands of dollars of limo rides or the like.

There certainly are — as in business — those who come to think of these as something they deserve. Something they’ve earned through years of toil.

I certainly, as a taxpayer, am like everyone else in wishing a little common sense might be shown. Staying in a different five star hotel than the five star hotel your conference is in and incurring transport costs seems excessive.

But I — having lived the life of endless travel (I spent nearly five years in a different city nearly every day of the week, flying onward every evening) — also understand why you might do some “not so obvious” things.

Like (for instance) staying in Central London and commuting out to the office in the suburbs by train daily rather than staying in a hotel in the suburbs, if you’re going to be there a week.

What is there to do in the evening in the suburb? Not much. And getting to an event in the city requires you to stop work too soon — or go without dinner to make the return trip.

Staying in the city, on the other hand, lets you do something in the evening, eat, and get to bed at a reasonable hour.

Yet, if you don’t know what the life of an itinerant is like, it looks providentially expensive to have chosen a city base rather than a suburban one. Even though the train fares are less than a car rental; even though it makes for a better use of time and keeps you saner.

Anything out of the ordinary looks like an entitlement. So it is envied.

Well, our society will have ever more freelancers in it. More people who go from gig to gig instead of to a daily job. More people who travel to where the work is.

It’s not a life to envy. It’s filled with far too much unpaid time, paying full cost for things normally on benefits, and often lonely.

As we continue our societal transition from mostly being in jobs to many more of us being merely people who work, we’re going to have to rethink our presumptions about entitlement.

And what we think should be discounted or free simply because we think we’re entitled to it.

2 thoughts on “That Sense of Entitlement

    • Hi, Shane: thanks for the HBR link. Most of us who’ve spent serious time as one-person bands (freelancers) know how different a life it is. I must say my past two years back in an office certainly made me appreciate my consultant’s life a little more than I was back in 2009…

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