Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Entitlement America

When Gretchen Neels, a Boston-based consultant, was coaching a group of college students for job interviews, she asked them how they believe employers view them. She gave them a clue, telling them that the word she was looking for begins with the letter "e." One young man shouted out, "excellent." Other students chimed in with "enthusiastic" and "energetic." Not even close. The correct answer, she said, is "entitled." "Huh?" the students responded, surprised and even hurt to think that managers are offended by their highfalutin opinions of themselves.

So begins a recent article from the Wall Street Journal's Careers section, which adapted it from a new book by Ron Alsop, on the millennial generation in the workplace.

Alsop, who is a WSJ columnist, gives an in-depth profile of a generation, 80 million strong, and set to turn the world of work on its head, not to mention turning manager's hair gray. Born between 1980 and 2001, the youngest work demographic is a paradox of values and motivations--entitled and expectant, but also philanthropic and community-minded, not to mention, often possessing skills in abundance. The question becomes, how do we harness them in a way that they don't overturn the workplaces that aren't set up strictly for them?

Alsop's book reminds me that we seem to be in an entitlement phase at this time in America. Young and old alike seem to think that life owes them something more than an opportunity to access success.

I've been musing lately about where this attitude originates. It is certainly influencing our current race for president, as many are making their choice for the next leader of the free world entirely based upon, "what choice of candidates will do the most for me?"

While Alsop's book is focused on the younger set, an attitude of entitlement isn't reserved merely for those younger than 25. It infuses all stratas of the American demographic landscape, IMHO.

Maybe my thoughts on this subject have been influenced by my choice of reading material of late. I'm reading Studs Terkel's classic, Hard Times: An Oral History of The Great Depression, which was written in 1970.

I'm amazed by the stories in Terkel's book, about how our country, 75 years ago, was such a different place. Americans were tougher, able to withstand adversity and economic deprivation with a spirit that's long disappeared from our shores.

Today, every little inconvenience is fodder for a string of complaints, and an attitude permeated by expectation.

I'm old enough to remember men and women from my youth that told me stories similar to the ones in Terkel's book. Given that our own economy has taken a turn southward, I thought it might be time to revisit the past for some wisdom and coping skills. I haven't been disappointed.

One thing that I'm impressing on every person I counsel about work skills and what employers are looking for, is to focus on helping them create value, as well as modeling the right values. These two things, gleaned from the past, will serve anyone--millennial, Gen X, boomer, or traditional--well in the coming weeks and months.


Brian Kelsey said...

I wouldn't normally comment on this issue, but I've sat through three speakers at a conference today pointing out the professional shortcomings of the Millennials. I was born in 1978, which I guess puts me outside the official Millennial age range, but I still feel the need to come to their defense a bit. I am surprised that more of the experts who follow these sorts of things didn't see this shift coming. This is a generation that came of age watching and listening to their parents grow more and more disillusioned with working for large corporations, as we learned wonderful terms like downsizing and rightsizing. Combine that experience with the advances in technology and growth in service sector jobs, and it doesn't take a Ph.D. in organizational psychology to see why Millennials are making different choices about where and how to work. They may have a few hard lessons coming their way, especially during economic downturns. But talented Millennials are redefining what "work" means these days because they can--the options are there for them. Companies should not cater to the unrealistic demands of young people. That said, we'll be a lot better off when the generations start listening to each other and working together to improve what we now call work, instead of just complaining about what we perceive as shortcomings in each other's workstyle. And that goes for people of all ages.

bizdirector said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Brian.

I think its easy to market Millennial-bashing books, particularly since many in the baby boomer and traditional age range find it convenient to blame all problems at the office on the younger set, at least that's my opinion.

I concur with many of your points, particularly the need for us to improve cross-generational dialogue, including outside the office/workplace.