Is Entitlement Among Millennials Overblown?

New research suggests we may be exaggerating the generation gap in the workplace.

By now we're all familiar with the stereotypes of different generations in the workplace. Boomers are workaholics who respect authority and have a lifelong loyalty to their company. Generation X employees prize a work-life balance. Millennials float from job to job and flaunt managerial authority and are too busy texting to care what you think of that.

Given the popular consensus about office generational gaps—and the abundance of advice columns on bridging them—you'd think evidence for these traits would be strong. That's not at all the case, says management scholar John Bret Becton of University of Southern Mississippi. "We're always looking for a reason why people are different," Becton tells Co.Design. "But at least half of the research shows there's really not a lot of difference."

Some studies do find striking generational divides in the workplace. Based on personality data from more than a million people, psychologist Jean Twenge has concluded that Millennials might enter the workforce with "unrealistically high expectations" and difficulty taking criticism. Management scholar Paul Harvey recently told the New York Times that Millennial entitlement is a "real problem that managers are having" and suggests screening potential employees for the trait.

But plenty of other research suggests that popular portrayals might greatly exaggerate such character differences. A 2006 paper called the generation gap "more myth than reality," and a 2010 analysis of 26 peer-reviewed studies found that 18 failed to report any consistent differences among generations in the workplace. A more recent survey found that contrary to the entitled reputations of Millennials, three in five felt they had something to learn from their managers.

Becton's latest study, set for publication in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, lends support to both sides of the debate. Analyzing an applicant pool of roughly 8,000 workers from two organizations, Becton and collaborators did spot some evidence for common generational stereotypes. Baby Boomers showed fewer job changes than Gen X-ers or Millennials, and were (somewhat) more compliant to office rules; Gen X-ers, meanwhile, were less likely to work overtime.

But the effect of these generational differences on employee behavior was very small. So small, says Becton, that the stereotypes don't seem to merit all the attention they receive. The work doesn't support the idea of crafting unique management or hiring strategies for the various generations, as many companies do. Better, Becton says, to build office practices flexible enough to suit a variety of personalities.

"I read a lot of stuff all the time about how you need to cater to the Millennial generation, or Gen X, or Boomers," he says. "At least based on this study, I think that might not be worthwhile. Because even though there are some differences, they're pretty small in the grand scheme of things."

A big reason generational divides might mean less than we think they do is that "generation" itself is hard to define. People often disagree on something as basic as the years that bracket a given group. And even assuming that all Baby Boomers were born between 1945 and 1964, for instance, the cultural experiences of someone born on V-E Day and someone born the day Kennedy was shot could differ dramatically. The latter might easily identify more with Generation X.

"It seems arbitrary how we have segmented people and say, 'Oh, you fit into this generation,'" Becton says.

That's not to say generational gaps have no impact on a workplace. Technological changes are an obvious example. Older employees may indeed have a tougher time adapting to new office technologies than younger ones (though that's arguably a result of age more than generation), and recruiting for a position exclusively through LinkedIn is likely to attract a younger applicant pool.

What the conflicting evidence does suggest is that we're quicker to blame the generation gap for office differences than we probably should be. Writing on the subject recently at Entrepreneur, David Maxfield called generational blame an example of the "fundamental attribution error"—a tendency to attribute behavior to personal stereotypes rather than unique situations. Who knows: Maybe that Millennial texting away on the job is just a child urging a Boomer parent to get to work.

[Image: Young person at work via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • Callum Nash

    From my perspective I struggle to understand the context of this article and what it's trying to say. Did boomers and generation Xers have more entitlement, opportunity and personal wealth than millennials? Yes, it's measurable in every way. Will millennials be able to buy a home and start a family at the same age or younger than boomers? No, the gap where that becomes affordable is up by as much as ten years in some studies. Have millennials been lied to about the value of university and that being a pathway into a job? Yes, like, their entire lives, hence why they probably have over blown expectations when they come into jobs, even though their level of expectation will be exactly that of their parents. I find it hard to read an article about this subject that doesn't prefix how an entire generation have been sold wholesale into debt and utterly fucked over by the generations above them. That might sound radical to you, but it's a mild way of putting it.

  • Having the privilege of working across all of the generations in a professional association (CPAs), I think the "generational issues" are more function of how technology and the workplace have changed over the last decade.

    As we move from "command and control" environments to "connect and collaborate", there are significant differences that manifest themselves. I find your research that three in five millennials want to learn from their managers is spot on, if not even higher. However, when they say that, they often comment that it is difficult to get their senior managers to "listen" and appreciate their perspectives.

    At the end of the day, your article comes back to the right answer, "Becton says, to build office practices flexible enough to suit a variety of personalities."

  • I often think the so-called differences in the generations are more a failure of the older generation to realize people still have a lot to learn than they are of the up-and-comers. Every older generation has complained the ones that follow feel "entitled". This is nothing new. Nor will it likely change.

    I'm definitely in the "older" group now - and I have to tell you I'm absolutely inspired by what young folks are doing these days. Are they entitled? Some of them sure as heck are, because they're working hard for it, just like everyone else.