Will the 'culture of entitlement' give way to the Age of Humility?

In the annals of legendary meals, it will be hard for any big spenders to top, at least for a while, the $62,700 that six British investment bankers dropped at a fashionable restaurant in London last summer. And that covered only the wine. The owner of Pétrus, awed by the bankers' cavalier spending - $17,500 for one vintage bottle alone - didn't charge them for the food they ordered.

What a memorable way to celebrate the closing of a deal.

For more than a decade, what could be called the Age of Entitlement flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. Stocks soared. Money flowed. Heads swelled. Egotistical "I deserve it" attitudes reigned, and not just among bankers.

These days, a sense of entitlement starts early. Consider the teenagers who refuse to work at McDonald's on grounds that it's beneath them. Or the young trainees at upscale hair salons who balk at sweeping the floor, explaining that they wants to be stylists - now. Then there are the newly minted law-school grads who expect a six-figure starting salary. And the superrich who think they deserve yet another tax break.

The prevailing credo could read: Down with humility and fairness, up with privilege and power.

For sheer arrogance, it may be impossible to top the culture of entitlement that flourished at Enron. While the investment bankers in London were dining like kings, Enron executives in Houston were reveling in lavish excess, partying hard before the company imploded.

Stories about a planned $1.5 million Christmas bash - eventually cancelled - and an employees' meeting that starred a baby elephant are becoming legendary. So are tales of expensive restaurants, five-star hotels, and huge bonuses.

Although the London investment bankers paid for their celebration out of their own pockets, the evening ultimately cost them far more than they had bargained for: Five of them lost their jobs when they tried to write off part of the tab on their expense accounts. Even the mighty have limits.

In certain small ways, Americans have grown more egalitarian in the wake of Sept. 11. Tighter security measures at airports exempt no one - not even the most privileged passengers - from being searched. Yet when it appeared recently that the airlines' "favored customers" would have to wait in the same security lanes with everyone else, a collective gasp of horror went up. Mercifully, the airlines spared them that indignity. Entitlement to the rescue!

It is airlines, in fact, that may have unwittingly contributed to a growing sense of entitlement by routinely upgrading their best customers to first class. Ah, those wide leather seats. And those pleasant meals, cloth napkins, and hot towels, all delivered by attentive flight attendants.

Who wouldn't love all that pampering, all those perks?

There's only one problem: Some upgraded passengers appear to forget that it isn't their money that buys all these tickets, and that they are, to a large extent, Great Pretenders in first class. Under other circumstances, they'd be seated in the back of the plane, riding in sardine class with the rest of us, nibbling a pretzel for dinner.

Is there a chance that the current economic slowdown could usher in a new Age of Humility, an era of compassion, muting the pervasive sense of entitlement? Maybe.

For now, any big spenders who need suggestions about how to share their largess could start by writing a check to the nearest food bank, where contributions, at least in the United States, are currently down. Even one-fifth of the cost of that $62,700 dinner - about $12,000 - could buy a lot of hot meals at a homeless shelter, or pay mounting bills for a few laid-off workers' families. Not a bad start.

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