THE BLOG
11/13/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Generation 'Why?'

The millennials, also known as Generation Y, have a bit of a PR problem. Ask many people in their 30s or beyond what it's like to work with a member of this generation (born between 1982 and 2002), and you may hear that they're self-entitled, unwilling to work hard, whiny and constantly questioning authority. We can chalk up some of the negativity to the usual growing pains of a generation coming of age, but PayScale.com's "Generations at Work" study reveals that there are some cultural and socioeconomic factors at work to explain the behavior patterns and perceptions of Gen Y in the workplace.

Some of the salary and work stats aren't surprising -- young workers are less experienced, so they earn less, are less likely to be managers, and are more concerned with job perks like overtime pay and bus passes than they are with robust retirement plans. These facts were true for previous generations earlier in their careers as well.

But Gen Y is entering the workforce at a unique time in history. They grew up in a time of economic prosperity, but are entering a job market still reeling from the economic collapse of 2008. Many middle-class millennials got the impression that their parents' success came easily -- after all, wages soared in the mid-'90s and early 2000s, and by the time millennials could form their earliest memories, many of their parents had already worked their way past entry-level positions and were well on their way to career success.

These millennials were groomed, through rigorously planned play dates and a strategic slew of extracurricular activities, with the assumption that they would attend college. Sixty-three percent of millennials report holding a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 48 percent of Gen-Xers and 44 percent of baby boomers. That means that on top of the closet full of participation trophies they earned as children, the majority then went on to spend four more years hearing about their potential in academia. Now they're graduating, only to find that most of their peers did the same thing and are all equally special. That's easier to deal with if you pursued a high-paying degree, like engineering, but if you followed your heart into a less lucrative subject, reality can seem pretty brutal.

Lauren F., a 27-year-old with a degree in art history, says, "There are so many of us with a college education that a bachelor's degree means nothing anymore. When you're going out into an environment where everybody is on an even playing field, it's a shock suddenly seeing that there is always somebody out there who is better than you."

Millennials are entering a stalled job market; many chose degrees based on their personal interests rather than their earning potential; and a large percentage also carry a skyrocketing amount of student debt. All of this contributes to a general sense of malaise.

Still want to write Gen Y off as a bunch of delusional whiners who need to buckle down and readjust their expectations? Another piece of data from PayScale sure seems to support that thesis. Millennials rate their jobs as the least meaningful and least satisfying compared to Gen-Xers and baby boomers, but also report the lowest job stress rates. You may look at this and say that it's another sign that Gen Y isn't willing to work hard to earn the wild success they expect. And that laziness is what causes them to give up and move back in with Mom and Dad so frequently (about 28 percent of millennials report having moved back home after entering the workforce due to financial hardship, compared to just roughly 11 percent of Gen-Xers and 5 percent of baby boomers).

But maybe the story isn't that simple. Remember, the people complaining -- baby boomers and Gen-Xers -- are the ones who told them all along that they were special snowflakes?

Mary B., a 26-year-old who just left a position in retail management to "to gain mental clarity around future career goals," says, "baby boomers and Gen-Xers told me to dip my fingers into lots of different things and take advantage of my 20s." If the idea of taking a gap year in your mid-20s seems crazy to you, ask yourself why she thinks this is so normal. While Mary was certainly influenced by peers, ultimately it's her parents and mentors who taught her to ask questions like "Why should we have to settle for something less when we know we are capable of something more?" and turn down stability for the pursuit of something fulfilling.

Instead of just complaining that Gen Y is a bunch of entitled divas, maybe we should look at how they got that way. Before we cast stones, perhaps we need to look inside our own lives to see if sacrificing work-life balance and emotional fulfillment in exchange for a steady paycheck caused many of us to overcompensate by steering millennials in the wrong direction.

Gen Y, this doesn't mean that you get to continue the social faux pas everybody is complaining about. Growing up is never easy. Your college degrees do count for something, you've a way with technology that older generations can only dream of, and, thanks to [insert your favorite social network here], a pretty innate understanding of personal branding. But you have to get it together. Learn from your constant questioning, but balance it with hard work. Mary, our millennial on sabbatical, points out that "when you know the 'why' behind something, you put more effort into it." However, it's a matter of context. If you're solving a tough problem with your team, understanding why you're asked to do something can help you come up with even better solutions. If you're asking why you have to fold a shirt a certain way at the mall, you're just being annoying.

Technology is a blessing and a curse to millennials. Lauren summarizes it nicely: "We're used to having things come to us instantly and be easily accessible, so we think that money should fall into that category as well. You should be able to work less and gain more." Millennials should continue to hone their technical skills, but show older coworkers that they are willing to work, even if they suspect there's a better way to do it. Prove that you're a team player and your older coworkers will be more likely to listen to your questions and suggestions in the future.

It will be a challenge for Gen Y to reconcile the culture in which they were raised with the economic reality they face today. But since that same economy is forcing baby boomers to delay retirement and making the job market even more crowded, it's vital that millennials learn to take some constructive criticism and learn from their elders. Play nice and you might be able to teach the old folks something cool, too.