Millennials: Overconfident or Better Prepared?

All-Winners_Squad2There are so many ways to describe Millennials – creative, technology-adept, generous, collaborative. Yet the word that has stuck is ‘entitled‘.  The basic idea that Millennials expect to be treated with unearned respect in the workplace refuses to go away and may even be worsening.

In August 2009, York College of Pennsylvania conducted a nationwide study of 520  Human Resource managers  and business leaders to determine their perceptions of the ‘professionalism’ of recent college graduates.  The study asked if a sense of entitlement among first year college educated employees has increased, stayed the same or gotten worse. Ninety-three percent said it had either increased (61%) or stayed the same (32%).  More evidence of worsening comes from Kit Yarrow and Jayne McConnell in their book, Gen BuY: “In our research we did not find (entitlement) to be a hallmark of this generation, but we did see higher expectation in general and confidence that might appear to be arrogance. Nevertheless, the continuum that ranges from “hope” to “expectation” to “entitlement” is shifting twoard entitlement, particularly for the youngest members of Gen Y.”

In November, I suggested that the word ‘entitlement’ has different meanings in different contexts. One person’s entitled is another’s ‘over-‘confident’.  Is overconfidence such a terrible thing?   Here is my daughter’s defense of the charge:

“Since our generation thinks confidently and differently, this has given us the ability to be different, and to act upon these ideas and truly create a change in the world. Our sense of entitlement and confidence can be construed as arrogant, or as unearned, but our generation just desperately wants to be given the chance to prove ourselves and create a better world around us.” – Ariella Phillips, 18

Perhaps the best defense is no defense at all.  What if Gen Y truly is deserving of more responsibility at an earlier age than previous generations?  This is the position of Ian David Moss,  who posted a “Manifesto” on the American Arts blog last week, and also on his own blog,

The secret power of Generation Y is not that we’re smarter: it is that we are MORE

  • More numerous: the population of the world is 6.7 billion, 81% higher than it was in 1970.
  • More highly educated: 29% of Americans age 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees now, compared to 11% in 1970.
  • More professional: Nearly one-third of employed Americans work in the so-called “creative class” (i.e., white-collar professions), compared to about a fifth in 1970.
  • More egalitarian: the percentage of women in the workplace has shot up both domestically (from 43% to 59% between 1970 and 2006) and internationally, and racial barriers to employment have lessened significantly.
  • More ambitious: The number of high-quality colleges that offer meaningful financial aid has exploded; many more scholarships exist for talented low-income individuals.
  • More international: Enrollment by foreign residents in US colleges and universities is up significantly in recent decades.
  • More technologically able: More about the technology than the people; the Internet has completely revolutionized the way we communicate and think about opportunity.

The implication, Moss contends, is “the best candidates for entry-level jobs (who are the ones who get them) are smarter, on average, than the best candidates for entry-level jobs in a previous era (who are the ones now leading organizations).”  He concludes that the sense of entitlement comes from having the ‘best of the best’ in your office, the ones who are accustomed to being the ‘cream of the crop’, and this is a fact that managers should take some comfort in rather be dismayed.

“Generation Y is not smarter than anyone else. But the specific members of Generation Y populating your office probably are. And if they are, that’s a testament to your hiring skills! Nice work! Not only that, they probably have their eyes on bigger things than mail merges—because, in fact, they are capable of bigger things. Which is good!  Wouldn’t you rather have talented, multifaceted people on your team than folks who are satisfied doing one thing sort-of well?

This logic appeals to me. It also fits my experience teaching Millennial students at The University of Notre Dame. It’s hard not to notice the tremendous skills students bring to discussions and assignments. I am frequently astonished by their insight and professionalism. It also helps to shed some light on Millennials’ expectation that they will be judged fairly based on results, not on who they are or their prior experience. 

A study of 1000 Canadian Gen Y members 18-29 years old by Career Edge, found that Millennials reject the entitlement label, but do feel strongly they are prepared to compete effectively in entry level jobs and internships — and for their efforts to be appreciated.

“Contrary to the notion of entitlement, this generation has realistic goals when planning and building their careers. Nearly half (47%) of the respondents believe they are adequately equipped to start their career upon completion of their education. …

Seventy-six percent agree that fair compensation and promotion are clear ways for employers to demonstrate their loyalty. Sixty-six per cent agree that they would express their loyalty to their employers by going above and beyond their job description. This clearly defined sense of fairness and recognition distinguishes the work attitude of this generation. They are tasks and results driven. They believe career advancement should be based on merit (93%) and not tenure. They would readily perform administrative duties (91%) but many would not accept other people taking credit for their work (57%). They want to be evaluated by their performance, such as problem solving and communication skills, and not necessarily by other attributes such as respect for authority.”

Whether their self-esteem is warranted or unwarranted, young people all deserve a chance to show what they can do. Perhaps they are more capable in their own minds than in reality, but given a chance they may surprise. The Wall Street Journal describes a new trend in ‘two-way mentoring’, with Gen Y sharing their skills in social media with older generations in exchange for more career help.  If the trend continues, their talents will be discovered sooner rather than later.