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Just Who Gave Out All Those Trophies Anyway? — Dear Dr. Donna Responds to Criticism of Millennials

Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Dear Dr. Donna,

Seriously, what’s up with young people these days?

The young people I supervise are nothing like I was at their age. They’re lazy, entitled, narcissistic and they have no work ethic. I can’t get them to stay 15 minutes past quitting time to finish up a job and they want a promotion 10 minutes after they are hired.

They don’t want to pay their dues like we did. They got trophies just for showing up as kids and now they want the same at work. And the other day one of them brought their mother to work to sit in on their performance evaluation.

I’m at wit’s end with these kids. Maybe if they stopped living in their parents’ basements and had to earn a living to support themselves they would shape up.

— Pulling my gray hair out


Dr. Donna Says . . .

Dear Gray Hair,

Clearly, you’re having some issues adjusting to the new normal of the workplace — which, for the first time in history, encompasses a mix of as many as five different generations at once. That’s a lot of diversity of experience and perspective based on the influences of the shared experience of the cohort group.

The group you are referring to is the Millennials, also known as Gen Y, born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s (there is some debate about the exact parameters that make up each of the generational periods). You’re certainly not the first to voice these criticisms about this generation. In fact, so much has been written about them, fraught with disapproval and reproach, that Millennials have been tagged “the generation we love to hate.”

Even Time magazine jumped on that bandwagon. In 2013, the magazine featured Millennials on its cover, proclaiming, “Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.”

Let’s take a deeper look at some of the issues you are having with your Millennial colleagues and subordinates.

It’s true that many more young people are living in their parents’ basement (or at least not leaving the nest) than ever before. The facts:

  • In 1960 less than one in six 25-year-olds still lived with mom and dad.

  • In 2015, nearly one in three did.

  • In 2016 the PEW Research Group reported that for the first time in well over a century, more young people are living with their parents than with a spouse or partner.

There are a lot of opinions about this stay-at-home phenomenon. Typically, the economy and poor job prospects are cited as contributing factors. However, not everyone shares this view.

In 2012 the New Yorker published an opinion piece, notably entitled Spoiled Rotten, which concluded that the “failure to launch” experienced by Millennials was a direct result of being pampered and overindulged. In 2014, Forbes ran the article The Dirty 30s: Over 40% Of Oldest Millennials Are Still Financially Dependent on Mom and Dad, noting that a third of the eldest of the Millennial group had yet to find full-time work in their field, despite having graduated with college degrees over a decade prior.

This generation was certainly raised under different circumstances than any generation previously. Millennials’ experience growing up in family and school contexts, along with their early and ubiquitous exposure to technology and mass media, has been attributed to making them self-confident, social, technologically sophisticated, action bent, goal oriented, civic minded, and accustomed to functioning as part of a team. On the other hand, it has also been blamed for making them impatient, demanding, stressed out, sheltered, materialistic, entitled and self-centered.

Many parents of Millennials, desiring to “do it differently” than their own strict, authoritarian upbringing, where they were expected to be “seen and not heard,” allowed their children to have input into family decisions, even discipline issues. Thus, Millennials have always felt that they have the right to negotiate with everyone about everything. And they do challenge anyone at any time with the expectation that they have an equal say in the outcome. To traditional authority figures this feels disrespectful, insubordinate and non-compliant.

Unlike many previous generations who actively assert their independence, Millennials typically remain close to (and yes, sometimes dependent upon) their parents through their young adult years and they turn to their parents to intervene when organizations don’t meet their needs.

These parents have been labeled “helicopter parents” for hovering over their grown children to ensure their well-being and competitive advantage in life, or “Snowplow Parents” for clearing the way for their children. Millennials are used to hovering parents keeping tabs on their every move and they count on them to intervene and manage their situations.

Perhaps the most common criticism levied against Millennials is that they are “entitled,” meaning, in this context, that they feel they should have certain benefits, privileges and rewards without doing anything to earn them. This doesn’t sit well with generations who feel they had to work particularly hard to earn the benefits they have received. The previously mentioned Time article argues that “Millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that a recent study showed that 40% believe they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance.” Many echo this sentiment, even dubbing Millennials “trophy kids.” Blogger Benjamin Sledge writes, “Because of this conditioning of almost two decades of participation trophies, it’s created a subconscious sense of entitlement and a belief that what we want/deserve should be delivered at lightning speed.” The problem, as most see it, is that these “undeserved” trophies lead to similar expectations in the grown-up work world, specifically “entry-level syndrome.” Lee Caraher, author of Millennials and Management, The Essential Guide to Making it Work at Work, defines entry level syndrome as “The large, gaping gap in expectations of new employees and employers.” But here’s an important part to remember: she adds, “school and parents have done this to them.”

So, while Millennials expect that everything is negotiable, that they will be allowed continuous trial and error until they achieve the desired outcome, that they will have a voice in every decision that affects them, and that they will be frequently praised regardless of their level of relative performance, they expect this because it has been their reality. It is the world that the adults in their lives (a.k.a. the older generations) have created for them. It’s what they know, so it’s what they expect. Well … that makes sense, doesn’t it? Why would they think any differently? It wouldn’t be logical.

So, it would seem, if we are laying blame about this sense of entitlement and unrealistic expectations, well … in the words of the Baby Boomer comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And if we focus this microscope a little closer, we see that this “privileged” generation might not, in fact, be so privileged. In fact, “it ain’t easy being them.”

A recent Pew Research Center survey noted, “Millennials are the first in in the modern era to have higher levels of debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age.”

On a similar note, in 2016, The Guardian released a report highlighting “A combination of debt, joblessness, globalization, demographics and rising house prices is depressing the incomes and prospects of millions of young people across the developed world, resulting in unprecedented inequality between generations.”

Millennials, as it turns out, are faced with a new and different reality compared to the generations before them. The logical promise of a secure, upwardly mobile career trajectory, where hard work leads to rewards, is no longer the reality. Instead, political, social and economic upheaval, in the midst of rapid change, is their status quo. Expectations of employment options, job security and financial independence have been thwarted by forces they did not anticipate and for which their privileged upbringing did not prepare them. It’s left them wondering how the prosperity of their parents’ generation evolved into the chaos of theirs.

Social psychologist Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before notes, “Young people are angry. Told they could be anything they wanted to be, they face widespread unemployment. Raised on dreams of material wealth, more than a third live with their parents well into their 20s and beyond. No one told them it would be this hard.”

Back to that Time magazine cover … As I mentioned, it read “Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.”

But I left out a part. After that it also said “Why they’ll save us all.”

Whether you consider them spoiled narcissists or misunderstood victims, as this generation confronts adulthood and the problems of modern society, they face unprecedented political, economic and social challenges.

Perhaps it’s time to stop judging them and start helping them save our world — even if they have to do it from their parents’ basement.


Someone Once Said . . .

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

 — Socrates

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. To other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

 — Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Leadership requires the courage to make decisions that will benefit the next generation.

 — Alan Autry


Recommended Reading

For more info on these topics take a look at the following titles (synopses from

Generation Me — Revised and Updated: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before by Jean M. Twenge

In this provocative book, headline-making psychologist and social commentator Dr. Jean Twenge documents the self-focus of what she calls “Generation Me” — people born in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Herself a member of Generation Me, Dr. Twenge explores why her generation is tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but also cynical, depressed, lonely, and anxious. Using findings from the largest intergenerational study ever conducted — with data from 1.3 million respondents spanning six decades — Dr. Twenge reveals how profoundly different today’s young adults are — and makes controversial predictions about what the future holds for them and society as a whole.

Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials by Bruce Tulgan

Not Everyone Gets a Trophy provides employers with a workable game plan for turning Millennials into the stellar workforce they have the potential to be. The culmination of over two decades of research, this book provides employers with a practical framework for engaging, developing, and retaining the new generation of employees. This new revised and updated edition expands the discussion to include the new “second-wave” Millennials, those Tulgan refers to as “Generation Z,” and explores the ways in which these methods and tactics are becoming increasingly critical in the face of the profoundly changing global workforce.

Millennials & Management: The Essential Guide to Making it Work at Work by Lee Caraher

As management ages and prepares to work longer than previous generations and Millennials join companies at a steady rate, companies are suffering through tension and dissonance between Millennials and Boomers, and realizing that they can’t just wait for management to age out to fix it. Finding productive ways to work across the generation gap is essential, and the organizations that do this well will have significant strategic advantages over those that don’t. Millennials & Management addresses a very real concern of large and small businesses nationwide: how to motivate, collaborate with, and manage the millennial generation, who now make up almost 50% of the American workforce.

Managing the Millennials: Discover the Core Competencies for Managing Today’s Workforce by Chip Espinoza and Mick Ukleja

The Builders, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials — all make up workforces in every type of industry all over the world. The generational gaps are numerous and distinctly different between each age group, and Millennials have gotten a reputation for being particularly unique and often challenging. This revised edition includes the international perspective today’s valuable leadership needs to attract and retain these high-performing workers with very different values and expectations. With fresh research and new real-world examples, the powerhouse authorial team reexamines the differences between how different generations work today in businesses around the world, with insightful exploration into what makes the Millennial generation so different from the ones that came before.

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