In Defense of Millennial Narcissism
The concept of the millennial is, on a basic level, kind of bullshit. Not only is the actual age bracket it refers to fluid, there’s no consensus on what, if anything, these people all have in common. Most so-called millennials don’t even know they’re millennials. But generally speaking -- much like the cultural epithet it’s so often yoked to, hipster -- a millennial is anyone younger than you who appears to be extracting a greater degree of enjoyment from life than you are. And for this, they’re rewarded with bitter scorn and mockery.
Their venial sin? A realization that they have access -- or a belief that they should have access -- to a deeper sense of personal satisfaction, be it through their work, their politics, or how they go about expressing themselves.
Naturally, this is an affront to those of us who had the misfortune of coming of age at a time when you were expected to go along to get along -- i.e., every other era ever. And thus the entire millennial generation has been subject, in the pages of publications great and small, to sweeping denunciations of its narcissism and lack of grit and character. “Millennials Are Selfish and Entitled, and Helicopter Parents Are to Blame,” pronounced Time magazine last year, just one example among many. The masses seem to agree. A Reason-Rupe poll last year found that 71% of American adults think of 18-to-29-year-olds as “selfish,” and 65% think of them as “entitled.”
This isn’t the first backwards-gazing generational stereotype, of course, merely the latest. And as is so often the case, the elder generation’s disdain for apple-cheeked harbingers of doom -- here, the Children of the Corn with a Tinder habit -- is based largely on the realization that the kids have tapped into a resource that they themselves never knew was there for the taking all along. Think of all those repressed Greatest Generation parents pissed off that their children recreationalized sex, for example: the sky-falling critiques may not have said it specifically, but the subtext was always: this is so obvious. Why the hell didn’t we think of it?
The IRL staging ground for much of the generational strife is the workplace, one of the most common habitats for older people to encounter millennials in the wild. Millennials (defined here as 18-to-34-year-olds) recently became the largest percentage of the workforce, according to a Pew Research Center study of US Census Bureau data from last spring. They now constitute a third, surpassing Generation X. And as they become an even bigger contingent over the next few years, the barbarian hordes in the junior suites will increasingly smuggle a cache of demands across the threshold of the HR department.
A piece in the Chicago Tribune last year relayed the results of a study in which 20,000 HR professionals were asked what they thought of millennials in the workplace, which the study defined as having been born between 1976 and 1994 (which, whoops, I just became a millennial halfway through this piece; where’s my cushy job?). They spoke of job applicants who flaked out on interviews, were reluctant to travel, and tended to switch jobs frequently.
“Millennials' sense of entitlement is frustrating,” the author wrote. “As one HR professional noted, the younger employees feel that they are owed more respect, opportunity and pay than their experience, ability or knowledge merit.” Similarly, millennials’ work ethic is lacking, some said. “Besides wanting to work remotely from Starbucks, millennials are often unwilling to put in more than 40 hours a week.”
(To be fair, if we’re talking about someone who knows jack shit and expects to waltz into work at the crack of noon, then, sure, fine, that’s worthy of scorn. But that’s not a generation -- that’s a category of people known as assholes.)
Millennials, I think, are often looking for something different. More specifically, job flexibility is one of the major reasons millennials give in numerous studies for their dissatisfaction. A survey done last year by Ernst & Young’s Global Generations Research found that a lack of flexibility -- the ability to, say, work remotely, or to take parental leave -- is one of the top five reasons millennials quit a job.
It’s easy to dismiss this as laziness or a lack of Admirable Personal Responsibility and Rigor and whatever other myths we want to tell ourselves about the good old days. But what’s so crazy about not wanting to be shackled to the office when you’re just as likely to perform as well, if not better, from home? Multiple studies in recent years have found that people’s happiness and productivity increase when they are allowed to work from home.
Further, most millennials tend to prioritize a work-life balance, or “work-me” balance, as a study published by the Harvard Business Review points out. “Millennials … want time for themselves and space for their own self-expression. Overall, the dominant definition was ‘enough leisure time for my private life’ (57%), followed by ‘flexible work hours’ (45%) and ‘recognition and respect for employees’ (45%).”
Is that such a crazy catalog of demands? We’re not talking about candy bowls filled with molly in the break room here.
As more millennials age into the parenting years, savvy employers are taking note of this dissatisfaction and doing something about it. Netflix, for example, announced last month that it would begin offering up to one year of paid parental leave, with Microsoft also upping its ration soon after. Such moves can be seen as an effort to retain the bright young talent that companies fight to attract in the first place -- which can be harder and harder to do, because millennials, as I said, like to change jobs a lot. Predictably, this sort of profession-fishing, bouncing from job to job as if swiping left and right on a dating app, is often couched in the language of disapproval, but in reality, it’s a smart play. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson referred to job-hopping as the “dream job premium,” writing that moving around between jobs “strikes many people as wayward and noncommittal.” But, as he relays, via a study of youth unemployment by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “job-hopping is actually correlated with higher incomes, because people have found better matches -- their true calling.”
There are a number of different ways to slice these shifts in how younger people think about work. Some portray it as evidence of a broad-sweeping character flaw. Paul Harvey, a professor of management at the University of New Hampshire, conducted research a few years back that said members of Generation Y, or millennials, “are more entitlement-minded than older workers. For employers, that means more employees who feel entitled to undeserved preferential treatment, who are more prone to get into workplace conflicts and who are less likely to enjoy their job.”
But another way to characterize the mentality -- to borrow Hunter S. Thompson's campaign slogan from back when he ran for sheriff -- is "There Is Some Shit We Won't Eat.”
Much of the history of labor has been one big three-squares-a-day-at-the-shit-trough buffet, and workers for generations have simply been expected to swallow its bounty and be grateful. Is it so crazy to say: maybe there’s a better way to do this? Granted, producing marketing slideshows and dreaming up new logos for energy drinks and whatever else it is people do for work now isn’t exactly back-breaking labor, but it’s not hard to imagine a turn-of-the-20th-century crank saying prepubescent incinerator-sweeps whining about black lung in the factories were acting entitled themselves.
Of course I’m talking for the most part about the white-collar economy. Low-income and poorer people are just as fucked as they ever were and always will be. But the balance of white-collar workers, or aspirants in any case, has shifted somewhat of late, because this generation is the most educated in American history, as a Pew study from 2010 points out. This is, Pew researchers explain, “a trend driven largely by the demands of a modern knowledge-based economy, but most likely accelerated in recent years by the millions of 20-somethings enrolling in graduate schools, colleges or community colleges in part because they can’t find a job. A record share of 18-to-24-year-olds -- 39.6% of them -- were enrolled in college as of 2008, according to census data.”
Setting aside the fact that going to graduate school is a disastrous financial burden to be avoided at all costs (trust me, kids), is it any wonder that as more of the younger generation becomes educated they chafe at the idea of a life of meaningless labor? How many members of previous generations had watched their own parents slog to work every day in a one-track career they hated and had no hope of breaking free from? Fuck -- if you’ll excuse my casual millennial tone here -- that. The bloom is off the rose of the employee-employer relationship. Millennials know now that the companies people work for don’t care about them, so why wouldn’t the “fanciful dreamers” go about it on their own terms?
MBO Partners, a group that’s been tracking the rise of the independent worker -- freelancers, self employed, side-giggers and so on -- found that in 2014 the number of “solopreneuers” rose to 17.9 million, an increase in 2 million since MBO started tracking it in 2011. What’s more, 82% of them reported that they are either highly satisfied (63%) or satisfied (19%) with their work style. Overall there are 30 million Americans working independently, they learned. As the Freelancers Union concluded through a study of its own members, this is the new normal for millennials: “Millennials expect to piece together a work-life through a variety of gigs. They don’t know -- and often don’t want -- the traditional 9-to-5 work-life. That’s why our under-30 membership has boomed more than 3000% since 2007.”
Many of those independent workers have been pushed out of -- or blocked from -- full-time work courtesy of economy-wide shifts (helped along by employers who don’t want to pay for benefits anymore), but a significant percentage just want to do whatever the hell it is they want to do. Maybe selling twee ironic mustache wax out of a refurbished artillery factory, or stitching literary record reviews onto scarves to sell on Etsy, or whatever other pipe dream millennials have when we write jokes about them, might not be as sound a career choice as [trying to think of an actual stable career field these days and failing], but why are we actually criticizing them? Wanting to do something that makes them happy? Not wanting to fritter away the best years of their lives in an office or a warehouse somewhere making money for someone else who doesn’t care about them and is going to end up firing them anyway when the next crop of young fresh workers rolls off the higher-ed conveyor belt?
The dividends of the so-called entitlement generation’s self-esteem offensive may be seeping into the culture at large as well. Consider the widespread and growing protests around the country all year from workers who have been rallying for a $15 minimum wage. The argument against that, if you can call it one, is typically a spittle-flecked dismissal of lazy, entitled workers who want something they didn’t earn. Sound familiar?
Entitlement is merely another way of saying I, and you, and we, deserve something better. That doesn’t mean anyone should be able to work four hours a week and make a hundred grand just because it would be nice and they’re super chill, come on, man. It’s setting a higher ideal, and saying: why the hell not?
This translates into other realms as well. You’ll often hear millennials criticized for saying that their feelings matter, for expressing social justice tendencies online, and for trying to enforce political correctness. While there’s some merit to the argument that that sort of sensitivity can swing too far in the opposite direction at times, by and large this emphasis on personal respect for others’ feelings has had sweeping effects on the way we talk about, accept, and embrace others throughout the country. What is fighting for civil rights (as we’ve seen in the gay-marriage victories), the newly emphasized trans-rights movement, and the enough-is-enough rhetoric of Black Lives Matter but a generation of people demanding more from those who’ve long refused to give it to them?
On a personal level a lot of this attitude might seem selfish, but these new norms have a way of spreading out from the source once they take root. Maybe it’s we, the older cohort, who are being selfish here. Ask any parent what they want for their children and they’ll likely say they want them to be better off than they were. Why doesn’t that apply to the other guy’s kids too? That’s all that millennials believe they’re actually entitled to here, a slightly better, more enjoyable life. To which I say: good for them.
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Luke O'Neil is a writer from Massachusetts who contributes to Esquire, the Washington Post, The Daily Beast and Vice. He loves Tom Brady, expensive cocktails, and skipping leg day at the gym. Follow him @lukeoneil47.