Millennials are uncertain, not 'entitled'

9 August 2017

We have read millennials wrong, argues Mike Lee. They can be as hard working as anyone. What they most need are clear work boundaries in an uncertain world. 

Whenever the word "millennials" comes up in conversation – describing that generation born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s –  it is likely to be coupled with "lazy", "entitled", or "narcissistic". That is because millennials are widely believed to be apathetic, uncommitted, and addicted to instant gratification. Not so, says Dr Mike Lee. They are merely uncertain about where they fit in. And, in any case, a slight sense of entitlement may not be such a bad thing.

"Researchers have linked what they call 'trait entitlement' to feelings of frustration, unhappiness, and disappointment with life, leading to a host of psychological and relationship problems," says Dr Lee, a Senior Lecturer in the Business School's Department of Marketing.

"But what I think employers and teachers are seeing and complaining about these days is not an entire generation beset with a personality disorder. It is simply a cohort of young people unsure of where they stand and what to expect."

Recent research backs up Lee. In February, 2017, UK-based think tank the Resolution Foundation reported that only 4% of millennials in their mid-twenties switched jobs in that country each year. The previous cohort – Generation X – were found to be twice as likely to do so. The US-based Pew Research Center found that millennials with university degrees stayed longer with employers than Generation X workers did when they were the same age.

"Having taught more than 5,000 university students over the past 15 years, I can say one thing with certainty: there is a huge variation in the quality and character of students," says Lee.

Some are proactive, confident and engaged, and will do well wherever they go, he says. A few others stand out for the wrong reason and are not used to hearing the truth about themselves.

"If you have been unfortunate enough to hire one of these people, my condolences".

In between lie the vast majority of students who are able to adapt.

"I wholeheartedly believe that they do not suffer from a sense of entitlement. They have simply lived semi-sheltered lives and have not yet had the chance to reflect on 'realistic' versus 'idealistic' expectations. And in the face of uncertainty, they revert to what is familiar – and that is to push until they get what they want."

Lee says that behavioural psychologists have demonstrated the power of intermittent reinforcement, in which, faced by uncertainty, most living things will continue doing what they have been trained to do until they get the result they have been trained to expect.

"What has been labelled a 'sense of entitlement' is more likely to be a 'sense of uncertainty'. Without any reliable source of guidance, or for fear of appearing to lack confidence, our young people are simply pushing for more, since demanding what they want probably worked in the past, and may even have been rewarded on the job."

The answer, says Lee is to recognise it as boundary-seeking behaviour in an unfamiliar and uncertain environment.

"Let's help them establish realistic expectations from the get-go – and that may mean tempering some of ours. Old-school notions of 'paying your dues', 'working your way up', and 'company loyalty' may be unrealistic, given current workforce trends."

Lee advises companies to be more explicit about why they prefer some types of workers more than others. He says that many first-time employees are like 'workers in a strange land', and would appreciate an explanation about the intricacies of new culture in which they find themselves.

What is more, says Lee, a sliver of entitlement among the young may help us all.

"If our young colleagues question the working conditions we have all grown accustomed to, and expect a more comfortable life, is that such a bad thing? As the saying goes, 'a squeaky wheel gets the oil', and a little oil in one area of working life may help lubricate the way to better conditions for us all."

A version of this article was first published in the Huffington Post


Mike Lee

Dr Mike Lee is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Auckland Business School's Department of Marketing.

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