Can We Stop Whining about Millennials?
Maybe you’ve heard the story of Diana Mekota (which our online editor wrote about when the incident first happened). If not, a quick recap: the 26-year-old Mekota was moving to Cleveland, and she needed a job. So she reached out to Kelly Blazek, who ran the Cleveland Job Bank listserv, which compiles job openings in the Cleveland area.
Blazek was indignant that Mekota tried to connect with her. She sent a scathing response, in which she sarcastically belittled Mekota’s networking attempts, calling them “inappropriate” and “tacky.”
Mekota did what comes naturally to Millennials — she turned to the Internet, sharing Blazek’s harsh words with the world. Following a wave of serious social media backlash, Blazek agreed to return her 2013 Communicator of the Year Award to the Cleveland Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and she disappeared from the Web.
You can take this story in a few ways. In one version, social media power went to Kelly Blazek’s head, resulting in a momentary lapse in judgment. But interpreting the story that way ignores the very specific manner in which Blazek attacks not just Mekota, but the whole Millennial generation.
So I propose another understanding: Blazek’s words and actions are specific instances of a more general disdain for Millennials — a disdain held by a significant chunk of both the Baby Boomers and Generation X, the not-always-kind elders to the Millennial generation. Furthermore, I think analyzing Blazek’s email reveals something that many have yet to recognize: people don’t dislike Millennials because they’re entitled. Instead, people call Millennials “entitled” because they dislike the way Millennials are changing the world and the workplace.
Change is Scary
Last year, Time Magazine famously called Millennials the “Me Me Me Generation,” but people have been accusing Millennials of entitlement for a long time now. Take a look at the 2013 Millennial Impact Report, and you might be surprised: 83 percent of the supposedly selfish Millennials surveyed made a financial gift to an organization in 2012, and 73 percent of them volunteered their time to a nonprofit. Does that sound like entitlement?
And it turns out that both the Baby Boomers and Generation X — the Millennials’ harshest critics — were attacked for entitlement at some point: Paul Begala crowned the Baby Boomers “The Worst Generation” based on their perceived selfishness, and we often forget that Baby Boomers, in their youth, were given the nickname, “The Me Generation.” As for Generation X, Peter Sacks wrote an entire book about the “jaded, unachieving” generation, who were “highly demanding yet lacking any respect for standards or intelligence.”
It seems that history is repeating itself with the current anti-Millennial movement. That’s because we’re at a moment of generational shift: more and more Millennials are coming of employment age every day, and by 2025, they will make up the majority of the workforce. As Millennials enter adulthood, they’re bringing new ideologies and practices into the world, which pose challenges to the old ways of doing things. Hence, older generations get a little panicky — change, quite frankly, scares people — and they trot out the accusations of “selfishness” to try to fend off the inevitable.
That’s an oversimplified view of things, but it’s a useful generalization, because it holds true in many cases. The Wire has a helpful list of instances of older generations wringing their hands about the selfish, lazy youngsters, stretching back to 1907. Suffice it so say: whenever there’s a new generation on the rise, the old generations get nervous.
Goodbye to the Old Ways
What’s most striking about Blazek’s email is the arrogance of it. At several points, Blazek makes a clear effort to demonstrate her superiority to Mekota. She quantifies her status by boasting about her “960+ LinkedIn connections.” She flaunts her position in the upper echelons of her profession by gleefully withholding “top-tier marketing connections” from Mekota and patronizingly insinuating that Mekota should be thankful for a “humility lesson” from a “senior practitioner.”
The overarching message of Blazek’s email seems to be: “Look, kid — there’s a hierarchy around here. I’m on the top. You’re on the bottom.”
For Baby Boomers and Generation X, this message makes sense. These generations tend to hew closely to institutions, like religion, political party, the nation, and the workplace. For them, the work world has always been a rigidly constructed realm with set rules and fixed boundaries. They see a separation between employees according to their levels, and they believe that those at the bottom need to prove themselves to the top.
But Millennials are here to shake up the way work has traditionally been done. According to a study by MTV:
- 89% of Millennials want their workplace to be social and fun
- 92% of Millennials think their company is lucky to have them as an employee
- 76% of Millennials think their boss could learn a lot from them (compared to only 50% of Boomers)
- 8 out of 10 Millennials want regular feedback from their boss
- 89% of Millennials think it is important to be constantly learning at their jobs
Millennials are eager, confident, and always striving to be better. They see themselves as assets to the companies they work for, and they want to make the most of their time there. They want to learn — especially through feedback from a superior — so that they can constantly improve. In the Millennials’ world, the old boundaries and social orders of the workplace are barriers to success.
But people like Blazek are clinging to the old ways, choosing the outdated world of self-important, insulated prestige over the new ideals of community and collaboration across all levels, and they’re using accusations of “entitlement” to make it look like they have the moral high ground: “I love the sense of entitlement in your generation,” Blazek snarks. “And therefore I enjoy denying your invite …”
In fiercely protecting tradition over change, aren’t people setting up the Millennials to fail by ignoring their strengths and forcing them to abide by social codes that no longer work? Isn’t the need to preserve tradition itself a form of entitlement, like telling Millennials that they need to do it your way instead of their own, because yours is the best?