It was only 18 months ago that the Wall Street Journal ran an article outlining the lavish demands of a new generation of workers, known collectively as Gen Y or Millennials or Net Gen. At the time, the thinking was that this group—ages 30 and under—had employers over a barrel. For one thing, there were relatively few of them, and employers, facing an imminent wave of boomer retirements, would be competing for the best of this young cohort. Also, since this is the Internet generation, they were believed to possess magical and mysterious tech skills that would prove invaluable in the workplace of the future.
Emboldened by these dual advantages, Millennials set their expectations high. Not only did they want fun, fulfilling work, with flexible hours, good salaries, and ample vacation, they wanted to be celebrated, too. Literally, feted. Savvy employers had taken to embracing measures like prize packages for a job well done, “public displays of appreciation,” and, in the case of one manufacturer in Texas, retaining a “celebration assistant” in charge of helium balloons and confetti. This was smart business, according to 30-year-old Jason Ryan Dorsey, a self-appointed Gen Y expert—who consults with companies like Kraft and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts about the peculiarities and preferences of his generation. “Marking milestones is major,” he told Forbes magazine. “No birthday should go uncelebrated, and the first day on the job should be unforgettable.” Which is great, except for one thing: what happens when the most entitled generation in history slams into the worst job market in 30 years?
At the turn of 2009, in the midst of massive layoffs and hiring freezes, not to mention cut-rate Christmas parties where punch just wasn’t in the budget, these demands seem cringe-worthy—even more so than they did before. If ever there was a sign that the era of the sellers’ employment market is over, it came last month when Google—the Santa Claus of corporate perk-giving—instituted a hiring freeze and, among other things, cancelled its New York office’s decidedly Millennial-friendly tradition of afternoon tea. Almost as soon as they began for this cohort, it would appear its halcyon days are over.
In November alone, 71,000 Canadians lost their jobs—27 per cent of the newly unemployed are people aged 24 and under—and economists predict this is only a bellwether of worse to come. Suddenly, many of those retiring boomers can’t afford to retire. Making matters worse, Millennials are saddled with more debt than any previous generation (an average of $5,631 per year in student debt alone, not to mention the load sitting on their credit cards, and what they’re doling out in car payments). This recession is not what they signed up for.
“They were absolutely told that ‘You’re part of a blessed generation and you are going to be in control of your own destiny,’ ” says Winnipeg native Steven Rothberg, owner of CollegeRecruiter.com, a company that recruits college graduates mostly in the U.S. “The spring 2008 grads have had to do some major adjusting. They graduated with the expectation that it was going to be a sellers’ market, that they were going to have multiple offers, step into an upper management role and have significant strategic impact on a Fortune 500 company, and that’s just not the reality.” Until last year, he said, university and college students in their senior year, even the mediocre ones, could expect job offers as early as Oct. 1 of their final year. Now, employers are waiting until the spring to make hiring decisions, waiting to see how the economy shakes out, and leaving more students graduating into uncertainty.
There will be schadenfreude from those who see Millennial entitlement as a moral failing. “I hear people say this a lot,” says Dorsey of his boomer executive clients. “They say, ‘Your generation just needs one good recession and then they’ll appreciate their jobs.’ ” But this is too simplistic an assessment of why “kids today” are the way they are. They’re not genetically lazy or spoiled, any more than children of the Depression are inherently thrifty. Whatever overblown expectations this generation has are the product of decades of conditioning, and not only by overzealous boomer parents. Well-intentioned attempts to make this generation feel good about itself have, in fact, left them poorly prepared to weather a tough economic storm.
Consider that this is the first cohort to come of age in a time of institutionalized self-esteem. Beginning in the seventies, programs designed to boost children’s self-esteem were installed in schools and at home, in the form of books and TV shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Throughout the eighties, according to the research of Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, the number of studies published on the benefits of self-esteem programs doubled, and in the nineties, it doubled again. Then came the elimination of competition, harsh red marking pens, and the arrival of books with titles like Celebrate Yourself: Six Steps to Building Your Self-Esteem. “Generation Me’s expectations are highly optimistic,” Twenge wrote in her 2006 book on the narcissistic tendencies of this group. “They expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous.” Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between optimism and confidence, and irrational entitlement.
But it wasn’t just indulgent teachers and coddling parents that formed this generation’s world view. The self-esteem revolution happened to dovetail with a consumer shift toward an ever-greater focus on the individual. Marketers trained their sights on young people more intently than ever before, piggybacking on the self-esteem movement to offer youth heaps of affirmation in the form of a countless array of products—just for them! They realized that parents, flush with credit and disposable income, were inordinately concerned with their kids’ opinions, even when it came to grown-up purchasing decisions (from cars to family vacations). Tweens spend about $2.9 billion a year and influence purchases worth another $20 billion. From the age of eight, Millennials saw themselves reflected everywhere: in ads for tween shampoos, designer fashions, and fragrances. By the time they got to university, credit card companies were handing out application forms along with student orientation packages. The message, as always: if you want it, you should have it.
It only makes sense that the environment in which they were raised would inform what they expected from a job—namely, flexibility, authority, instant respect and continuous affirmation. (This is a generation, after all, in which seven out of 10 rank themselves “above average” in academic ability.) “They’re not going to put up with the ‘paying your dues’ and being in the mailroom for the first three years,” says Rothberg. “In their mind it’s, ‘I graduated. I’ve always succeeded. I’ve always got a trophy for everything I’ve done. All of my friends and everyone I know is above average, so when I go into a place of work, I’m either going to set that place on fire or they’re not good enough for me and I’m out of there.’ ”
But there is a surprising upside to this attitude that may wind up benefiting both the young workers and the companies that employ them. Ironically, the Millennials’ addiction to affirmation may also turn out to be their saving grace. “What is interesting about this generation,” says Max Valiquette, president of Toronto-based youth marketing firm Youthography, “is that a lot of the carrots and perks they’re asking for have nothing to do with money, and almost everything to do with how they work.” Very few of them have had hard experience scrimping to make rent. (In fact, in 2006, 44 per cent of Canadian adults ages 20 to 29 were living with mom and dad). Instead, Dorsey says, the incentives they crave involve self-determination, being recognized for good work, and regular feedback—things that cost no money at all. In other words, to some degree employers may be able to substitute applause for hard currency and still keep young employees perfectly happy, a potential boon in a cash-strapped economy.
For those young workers fortunate enough to find or keep work in the midst of the storm, life is about to provide some eye-opening lessons, and the same might be said for the companies trying to balance their need for young ambitious workers with their immediate need to keep costs down. “Smart companies are going to see this as an unparalleled opportunity to build Gen Y loyalty,” says Dorsey. “I always mention the birthday thing because it’s so simple, but Gen Y really does believe that the most important holiday of the year is their birthday because it’s the one they don’t have to share.” If this turns out to be true, expect to be eating a lot of cake in 2009.