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In Defense of Millennials

Are millennials lazy and entitled? Or are they adapting to a changing workplace?

 Gabrielle Lewine
Source: Source: Gabrielle Lewine

This guest post was written by Gabrielle Lewine, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Southern California.

Let’s play a game. When I say the word “millennial”, what’s the first word that comes to mind? Perhaps some version of “lazy, entitled narcissists,” per Joel Stein’s controversial Time article about the “me, me, me generation.” Or maybe you’re more of a 60 Minutes type, and CBS correspondent Morley Safer’s “narcissistic praise hounds” fit the bill. Take a moment to search for images of “millennials” on Google, and you’ll be met with pages and pages of these fabled creatures staring at screens, taking selfies, or staring at screens in order to take selfies. It’s safe to say that millennials get a bad rap.

What is a millennial, you ask? The millennials make up the generation born between 1980 and the late 1990s. This means the second wave of millennials are currently between the ages of 18-26, smack in the middle of a period of life termed “emerging adulthood” by developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett. Psychologists have defined emerging adulthood as a unique period during which young adults have the chance to explore possibilities in the domains of love, work, and worldview, before adult responsibilities such as marriage and parenthood descend on them. This concept has been used to understand the delayed age of marriage (for women: from a median of 21 in 1970 to a median of 26 in 2010), the delayed age of first childbirth (from an average of 21 in 1970 to an average of 26 in 2014), and the increasing rate of pursuing further education after high school (from 14% in 1940 to >60% in the mid-90s). This is fitting, as emerging adulthood has its own unique set of developmental tasks, or benchmarks that indicate one’s success during a particular life stage. According to this theory, finding a career is one of the key tasks of emerging adulthood.

Millennials are entering the workforce in staggering numbers, and will represent over half of working adults by 2020. As this reality draws closer, Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers in management positions are starting to panic. How are they supposed to manage these selfie-taking yoga-loving brats?! This excerpt from Morley Safer’s aforementioned piece on millennials (forebodingly titled “The Millennials are Coming”) sums up this sentiment best:

“They were raised by doting parents who told them they are special, played in little leagues with no winners or losers, or all winners. They are laden with trophies just for participating and they think your business-as-usual ethic is for the birds. ... They multi-task, talk, walk, listen, type, and text. And their priorities are simple: they come first.”

Benjamin Linh, Creative Commons license
Source: Benjamin Linh, Creative Commons license

Inflammatory editorials are one thing – scientific research is another. With the massive influx of millennials in the workplace, huge companies are hiring researchers and consultants to answer the question of how best to manage this generation. So, keeping in mind this generation of emerging adults diligently pursuing their developmental task of choosing a career, let’s look at the science behind four common stereotypes about millennial workers: namely, that they are disloyal, needy, entitled, and casual.

The label of “disloyalty” comes from millennials’ frequent job-hopping, which is backed up by statistics. Approximately 60% of millennials report having already changed jobs at least once in their young careers. The average tenure of a millenial employee is 2 years (compared to 5 years for Gen X-ers and 7 years for Baby Boomers). This is a stark contrast from the employment model that these older generations met upon entering the workforce, the crux of which has been called the “psychological contract” between employers and employees. This psychological contract is an individual’s perceptions about what mutual obligations exist in employer-employee relations, and for previous generations, it went something like: “We will hire you and treat you well, you will respond with hard work and loyalty to our organization.”

Cue the 2007 recession. Early millennials saw this psychological contract broken as older employees were laid off in droves while higher performance was demanded of new employees and compensation flatlined. Never mind the many recent college graduates who, instead of finding the employment they sought, found an exponentially increasing interest rate on their college loan debt. Millennials have lower expectations for job security than the two generations before them, and it’s no wonder! Why work for a system that’s not working for you? While the same behavior 30 years ago may have been “disloyal”, millennials’ nomadic career journeys are to be expected: they adapted to the job market they entered.

“Neediness,” when used to describe millennials in the workplace, usually refers to a higher need for feedback and monitoring than existing management is used to. How much feedback? Researchers have estimated that millennials need feedback from their supervisors at least once per month, which represents a shift from a workplace model where requiring less oversight indicates that you are doing a good job.

Organizational psychologists have suggested that this increased need for feedback may be a product of 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. With the shift in focus from process to outcome as a direct result of this legislation, the classroom environment also shifted such that feedback was constantly provided in order to assess progress toward standardized outcomes. The pejorative label of “needy” may come from managers who resent the extra work required to provide this teacher-like level of feedback. However, research has consistently shown that frequent and specific feedback helps to optimize performance. Therefore, not only is this so-called “neediness” an expected by-product of millennials’ educational environments, it also aligns with scientific research on best practice in management.

Now, for the real zinger, “entitled.” Entitled is probably the first word many people associate with this generation: a Google search for “millennials are” has “entitled” among the top three suggested words to complete the search. Entitlement, in this context, essentially means expecting something for nothing. So, how well does this describe millennials in the workplace? Well, a global survey from 2014 conducted with 10,000 respondents indicated that 47% of millennials report working longer hours in the past 5 years, compared to 38% of Gen X-ers and 28% for Baby Boomers. Huh? That’s right – millennials are working even longer hours compared to prior generations.

Okay, so Morley Safer’s assertion that millennials want to “roll into work with their iPods and flip flops at noon, but still be CEO by Friday” doesn’t check out with the fact that this generation is working harder and longer than ever. But there may be some truth behind the second half of his quote. Millennials, as a group, are more ambitious and more likely to actively seek career advancement, according to a study of motivational differences among generations. And their ambition is paying off: in a 2014 survey, 30% of millennials reported already holding management positions. Furthermore, researchers have pointed out that millennials were raised in the age of helicopter parenting, when overscheduling, micromanaging, high expectations and even higher pressure to succeed was the norm. The ambitious, progress-oriented emphasis that they bring to the workplace can be seen as a direct continuation of this emphasis during their school years.

Pixabay, Creative Commons license
Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons license

And finally, millennials in the workplace are bemoaned for being too “casual.” This applies not only to their well-documented desire for less formal work attire, but more generally to a push toward working remotely rather than working from an office. The discussion of work-from-home policies is intricately tied to technological developments that define the modern workplace. When office culture was first established, it was necessary to come to work in order to do your work. This is no longer the case. As some organizational psychologists say, “work is no longer a place you go, but a thing you do”. And indeed, millennials do value work-life balance more than other generations, and rate it as an important contributor to overall job satisfaction.

Advocates of traditional 9-5 office work may dismiss demands for flexible work-from-home policies as just another example of lazy entitlement. But once again, these demands reflect a real cultural shift in work, family, and work-life balance as the millennial generation reaches adulthood. For example, millennials are almost twice as likely (78%) to have a partner that also works full time, compared to Baby Boomers (48%). Where family is concerned, the norm of working in an office reflected the reality of single-earner families, where one spouse went to work while the other stayed home for childcare purposes. Clearly, this is no longer typical, and rigid policies that don’t allow working from home do not respond to the now-normative situation of dual-earner families with young children. These policies have been historically unfriendly to women, who have ended up sacrificing their careers or exiting the workforce in order to care for children. Demands for flexibility regarding working from home not only reflect the millennial generation’s desire for more family-friendly workplace policies, but also come with a host of other benefits regarding productivity, employee morale, and the like (see here for a full list of pros and cons of work-from-home policies:

A slew of disgruntled managers and clickbait journalists have generated the impression in popular media that millennials are disloyal, needy, entitled, and casual workers. Moment of truth: does this depiction stand up to research? No. Every generation entering the workforce has changed its structure and mores to reflect the realities of the time, and millennials are no different. Each of these derogatory labels hides a story of millennials adapting to a harsh job market, seamlessly incorporating technology into their work, and advocating for work policies that are family-friendly. Furthermore, these demands largely reflect what research supports: for example, the value of frequent feedback and the motivational power of work-from-home policies. Joel Stein, the author of the “me, me, me generation” Time article, began by saying “I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow.” He’s right – the pattern of older generations preferring to think their way of doing things is preferable to new ways they don’t understand is timeless. The realities of the ways that millennials are changing the workforce reflect the more forgiving conclusion of Stein’s article: “They’re not a new species; they’ve just mutated to adapt to their environment.”


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