A specter is haunting America — the specter of millennial entitlement.
Last month, an article titled “3 Reasons Millennials Are Getting Fired” enjoyed a bout of social-media virality. The column, by Inc.’s J.T. O’Donnell, makes a fine addition to the growing canon of anti-millennial jeremiads — think pieces that warn of a rising generation spoiled past the point of employability, of a cohort so coddled, even offices replete with foosball tables and free snacks can’t cajole them to clock in on time.
Despite their love of taking selfies, millennials seem to hate taking a hard look in the mirror. When reprimanded by op-ed writers, many of my peers will deflect the charge of entitlement onto boomers, what with their low-cost college degrees and Social Security benefits. But for the moment, let’s stipulate that the fundamental facts about my generation, as established through countless media accounts, are true — that everyone born between 1980 and 1995 was raised in an upper-middle-class home, where the combination of “participation trophies” and helicopter parenting fostered an unprecedented sense of entitlement, leading us all to major in trigger-warning studies instead of innovative engineering, then move to either New York City, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco, where we’ve driven middle managers mad with our audacious demands.
We take these truths to be self-evident, all millennials are created entitled. But one can concede those premises without lamenting them. In fact, I contend that they’re actually worth celebrating.
A frustrated sense of entitlement is the soil from which all political action grows. There would have been no civil-rights movement without African-Americans’ sense of entitlement to political equality; no Reagan revolution had the one percent not felt entitled to their pretax income; no Trump campaign if true patriots didn’t feel deserving of an America where hardworking people who play by the rules never have to hear instructions repeated in Spanish.
There’s growing evidence that millennials’ sense of entitlement isn’t just a personal outlook, but a political one as well. In public-opinion polls, the demographic expresses outsize support for government handouts. And as The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz notes, millennials feel so entitled to “political purity,” many of them actually insist on voting for the presidential candidate whose views are most closely aligned with their own.
From the standpoint of a manager tasked with enforcing the prevailing norms of the American workplace, entitled millennials are indeed a scourge. But from the perspective of society as a whole, Generation Y’s unparalleled entitlement may actually be desirable. Few would deny that the entitlement felt by the Freedom Riders or suffragettes ultimately redounded to their nation’s benefit. The question, then, is whether the realization of millennials’ workplace demands — via organized political struggle — would improve or degrade American life. An examination of those demands — as articulated by the generation’s detractors — reveals the virtues of coddling the young.
Demand No. 1: A Living Wage
In “8 Signs Your Millennial Employee Won’t Succeed,” business blogger S. Slade Sundar diagnoses Generation Y with “Worthmore Syndrome,” a condition that leads younger workers to ask for raises, “rather than asking what they could be doing to earn a raise.”
“Don’t waste your time trying to get them to see how business profits correlate with performance raises,” Sundar continues. “They may be watching too much of AMC’s Mad Men. They’re thinking corporate bonuses and 3 martini lunches.”
If a millennial feels entitled to a third drink at lunch, you should probably ask them if everything’s all right. But if the demographic feels entitled to better wages, then we should be encouraging that entitlement. Between 2007 and 2013, American workers saw their take-home pay stagnate — except for those between 18 and 34, who saw it fall. Generation Y’s low wages don’t just hurt the millions of parents whose basements have become infested with downwardly mobile 20-somethings — they also hurt the broader economy by sapping aggregate demand, especially for big-ticket items like housing and cars. Millennials who feel entitled to more disposable income shouldn’t be told to stop whining; they should be implored to start organizing.
Demand No. 2: The French Workweek
In “3 Reasons Millennials Are Getting Fired,” O’Donnell provides a detailed inventory of millennials’ nonmonetary demands on their employers. One reason millennials are getting kicked off the corporate ladder’s lowest rungs, O’Donnell explains, is that they feel entitled to free time:
“Millennials tend to work only the minimum time expected–and will push for flexibility and a reduced work schedule to create more time for other pursuits. Being demanding about when and how they want to do their job can be viewed as disrespectful.”
Americans work more than anyone else in the industrialized world, and the percentage of professionals working 50 hours or more a week has risen steadily in recent years. Our chronic workaholism doesn’t just eat into millennials’ “Netflix and chill” time — it also prevents low-income parents from nurturing their children, keeps white-collar women from achieving equity in the workplace, raises mortality rates, and may even stymie economic growth. Several studies have found that part-time workers are more productive on an hour-for-hour basis than full-timers. Thus, spreading hours among a larger pool of laborers could actually boost aggregate productivity. At the very least, it would move the economy closer to full employment.
The evidence for the benefits of everyone spending less time at the office isn’t merely theoretical. Some of the strongest economies in postcrisis Europe — Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands — also boast the continent’s shortest workweeks. And while Americans famously work more than the French, we’re actually less productive than that nation of idling winos.
Demand No. 3: Free Training
Another reason millennials are getting fired, per O’Donnell, is their sense of entitlement to on-the-job training:
“Growing up, Millennials were coached their entire lives and they unknowingly assume employers will coach them too. However, the relationship isn’t the same. An employer pays us to do a job. We are service providers. Expecting extensive training and professional development to do the job doesn’t make financial sense.”
Such training was once a standard part of the employer-employee contract. But as unions declined and workers began changing employers with greater frequency, companies lost the incentive to develop their human resources.
This externalization of training costs doesn’t just frustrate over-parented millennials — it also creates a collective action problem that hampers productivity. As Bloomberg’s Allison Schrager explains, “If job skills translate, companies can make the cost-saving decision to cut worker training and simply hire people with the skills they need. But if everyone makes the same calculation, we end up with a collective action problem: No one is training.” That problem is only going to get worse as technology accelerates the pace of creative destruction, forcing workers to constantly update their skills to fit into an ever-changing marketplace.
If millennials feel deserving of subsidized job-training, whether through free public community colleges or a system of apprenticeships built on the German model, we should celebrate that entitlement. With 81 percent of college-educated millennials carrying long-term debt, it’s both unreasonable and impractical to expect them to self-fund their continuing education.
Demand No. 4: Socially Useful Labor
The final source of entitlement that’s getting millennials canned, according to O’Donnell, is their insatiable hunger for external sources of motivation:
“Millennials are pretty vocal about wanting work to be a ‘fun’ place to go … Besides nice work spaces, amenities like gym memberships, healthy meals on-site, in-house parties, etc., are being used in an effort to attract and maintain Millennial workers. Unfortunately, this is backfiring on employers–and that makes them angry. In spite of all the perks to keep them happy, Millennials are getting to these jobs and quickly showing visible signs of disappointment and dissatisfaction within months of joining the company.”
O’Donnell writes that millennials’ inability to find contentment in the modern office’s lavish perks stems from a lack of intrinsic motivation, which itself stems from parents who overcompensated their childhood labors. But most observers offer a different explanation for the cohort’s failure to be impressed by catered lunches. According to Fast Company, millennials have plenty of internal motivation; it’s just that they’re motivated to make the world a better place, not to maximize shareholder value.
As anthropologist David Graeber has argued, in the modern economy, it seems like the more your job helps others, the less you get paid to do it: Innovate financial products that destabilize the global economy and your children’s children will never have to work a day in their lives. Take care of the elderly and you’ll hardly be able to keep your children fed.
If millennials feel entitled to a “high-energy, boundary-pushing workplace that not only recognizes true talent but also makes the world a better place,” as the National Review so ruefully laments, maybe the problem isn’t Generation Y’s audacious expectations, but our political economy’s failure to meet them.