Millennials Are Uncertain, Not Entitled

05/28/2017 03:48 pm ET Updated May 30, 2017
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Stories about entitled, apathetic millennials just keep coming. A sense of entitlement is one of the diagnostic criterion for narcissistic personality disorder. Further criteria are a sense of superiority and grandiosity - other charges lobbed at millennials. By itself, researchers have linked ‘trait entitlement’, to feelings of frustration, unhappiness and disappointment with life, leading to a host of psychological and relationship problems.

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’s simply a cohort of young people unsure of where they stand and what to expect.

I’ve taught more than 5000 college students over the last 15 years. I can say one thing for certain: there is huge variation in the quality and character of students. The proactive, confident and engaged students of yesteryear are still here: the ones that stand out and go on to great things, often under their own steam.

Employers, lucky enough to have hired one of them, will know who they are. They make everyone’s life easier, raise the morale of your team, and make you want to be a better boss. When I tell my students to ‘do more, don’t complain, and be grateful’, those youngsters have been living their lives that way, long before they set foot on campus. I wish I could say such people were crafted in the halls of our fine institution, but that would be a lie. They are the ones who turn out fine wherever they go, whatever path they take.

Then, there are the small percentage that may indeed have trait entitlement. They also stand out, often for the wrong reasons, and soak up a lot of time and effort. Ironically, reading this, they probably think they are the successful self-starters. But you and I know they are not. Still, it takes a brave soul to say this to their face, because they’re not used to hearing the truth. Too few people have criticized them in their lives. Also, their sense of entitlement has gotten them to where they are now, so in their minds, there is no problem. Unless they don’t get what they want - scratch that - what they need. If you have been unfortunate enough to hire one of these people, my condolences. But I’m afraid there was not much we could have done at college. A deep-seated personality disorder can’t be fixed with a degree.

Then there is the bulk in the middle. These are the ones with whom we can make a difference. I wholeheartedly believe that they do not suffer from a sense of entitlement. I simply think that they have lived semi-sheltered lives and have not yet had the chance to reflect on ‘idealistic’ versus ‘realistic’ expectations. And in the face of uncertainty, they revert to what they are used to, and that is to push until they get what they want. Partly that’s a product of permissive parenting - as a parent, I’ll be the first to admit I am often guilty of being too generous with praise and too scarce with criticism… but that’s because my child is brilliant.

But seriously, if we want to raise kids who can handle criticism, than we must be willing to dish out critique. And this is where we all have a role to play. Behavioral psychology has shown across numerous studies and species the power of intermittent reinforcement. In the face of uncertainty, most living things will keep doing what they have been trained to do until they get a 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 has probably worked in the past, and may have even been rewarded on the job.

The solution: rather than characterizing their behavior as a generational personality disorder, let’s try to see it as boundary-seeking behavior in an unfamiliar and uncertain environment. Let’s help them to establish realistic expectations from the get-go – and that may mean tempering some of ours. Many of our expectations may seem as unrealistic to young workers as their expectations are to us. Old-school notions of ‘paying your dues’, ‘working your way up’, and ‘company loyalty’ may simply be unrealistic given the changes in workforce trends.

We need to be far more explicit about why we prefer some types of workers more than others. This may seem like stating the obvious, but many first-time workers are like ‘immigrants in a strange land’. Many will appreciate an explanation of the intricacies of the new culture in which they find themselves.

One last thought: in many ways a slight sense of entitlement may not be such a bad thing. Each generation has been subjected to the ‘you have no idea how lucky you are’ speech, often accompanied by a ‘back in my day’ ballad. But what’s wrong with expecting more of today than what was accepted yesterday? If our young colleagues question the working conditions we have grown accustomed to, and expect a slightly more comfortable life, is that really such a bad thing? Can’t progress be measured by improvements in living AND working conditions? As the saying goes ‘the squeaky wheel gets the oil’, and a little oil in one area of work-life may help lubricate the way to better conditions for everyone.

Dr Michael SW Lee is an award-winning teacher at The University of Auckland Business School. He has an MSc in Industrial and Organisational Psychology and a PHD in Marketing.

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