THE BLOG
10/08/2013 10:13 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2013

Gen Y: You're Not "Entitled," You're Unlucky

I hate hearing the word "entitled" used to describe Gen Y. Twentysomethings have been "entitled" for dozens of years now, yet this particular batch of twentysomethings is the first in decades to encounter an economy unable to fulfill rosier expectations. The face of youth hasn't changed; the economy has. Calling Gen Y "entitled" is tantamount to blaming the victim.

Employment's social contract -- the tie between employees' effort and proportionate results -- has fundamentally broken. We didn't mean to leave Gen Y with a broken social contract. It was a path paved by good intentions and reasonable business decisions. Take outsourcing, for example. Companies could get the same work for less cost and draw from a wider talent pool -- that's completely rational. Another popular cost-cutting initiative circa 2000 was reorganization, which removed high-paid middle-management positions (otherwise known as "a chance at promotion") and spread that work to remaining employees.

These rational business decisions -- innovations largely attributable to Baby Boomers -- had consequences, however. Immediately it meant fewer jobs domestically and increased competition. It also meant fewer promotion opportunities, so people started to stay in jobs longer (churn between jobs has dropped 25 percent annually since pre-recession levels). Suddenly, what used to be an entry-level job became a destination job, meaning one less spot for a new grad to cut his or her teeth.

More figuratively, it reduced employee confidence in the social contract with their employers. For Gen X (my own cohort), "putting in your time" used to mean 3-5 years as an analyst before becoming a manager; for Gen Y it now means 3-5 years in service & retail before the first analyst job. In that light, it makes sense that Gen Y would be skeptical of promises about the future, since even gainful employment out of college is now in question.

I've seen Millennials' increased interest in targeting fulfilling careers used as proof of their entitlement. To wit, apparently Google searches for a "fulfilling career" are growing while those for a "secure career" are falling. This to me is less proof of entitlement and more a real-life example of the maximin strategy. A maximin strategy is one that makes decisions based on which option offers the best worst-case scenario. There's no guarantee any career these days will be secure or lucrative, so one might as well target something fulfilling, all other things being equal.

I fear that Gen X-and-above use "entitlement" as code for something far darker when describing Gen Y, which is why I refuse to use the word. Due to both fundamental attribution error (if a situation goes well, it's because of my own virtues; if not, it's because of the faults of others) and the just-world fallacy (people get what they deserve), it's human nature to blame Gen Y's job search difficulty on their character flaws rather than our business decisions. That doesn't make it right, however. Older generations -- wittingly or unwittingly -- played a role in Gen Y's current struggles, either by creating policies that reduced entry-level job or promotion opportunities, or choosing to stay in a safe, stable entry-level job, denying that job from a new grad.

Yes, it's odd to us older folks that Gen Y wants to bring their parents to interviews. However, I think it was the parents, not the kids, who first offered that as an option, seeking to use whatever sway they had to improve their children's outcomes in a competitive market where there are three job seekers per open job. Gen Y didn't create Helicopter Parents -- they evolved together.

We can't change the past, and I'm not sure we'd want to. Those rational business decisions of the past 20 years likely helped this country weather the economic storms we've since faced. As a career coach, my job is to help job seekers succeed regardless of economic circumstances, but understanding my consumers and withholding judgment is a key first step.

I'll call Gen Y unlucky. I'll call them victims of a bad economy. I refuse to call Gen Y entitled.