Are millennials spoilt brats – or do we deserve a break?

Millennials expect everything on a plate, can’t accept criticism and are terrible to employ as a result, according to reports this week. But maybe our young people need a break – we’re doing amazing things in spite of unprecedented uncertainty, economic messiness and fraught workplaces

Iona Bain

Spend longer than a few weeks in the world of work, whether it’s in a head office or on the factory floor, and it’s guaranteed you’ll be furnished with anecdotes of bizarre behaviour for years to come. It’s almost impossible to avoid encountering some unusual, fascinating or even disturbing episodes in the workplace. People are acting under pressure, working long hours and making difficult decisions (sometimes with the sword of Damocles dangling over their pristine collars).

Furthermore, the reasons why we end up in a job are often tied to chance, luck, connections and being in a certain place at a certain time. We rarely figure out the lie of the land until we’re actually in the job. Then, we just have to make the best of it until we can figure out the exit strategy. Things aren’t helped by the fact that we rarely have a great deal in common with our colleagues. As one character in the British version of The Office put it: “Probably all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk round on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day.”

And let’s not forget that we still have a culture of silence, and even antipathy, towards the more mentally fragile members of our workforce, all-too-often condemning them to embarrassing public incidents prior to a swift and acrimonious exit when perhaps they should get sympathy, support and second chances instead.

In other words – we need to give young workers a break. They may not always judge things correctly, but we can be damn sure that things have never been tougher for people entering the world of work.

I say this because my attention was inevitably drawn to an article appearing in the Daily Mail and on its website last week, discussing the ”entitled” attitude of Millennials (a term I will reluctantly use as shorthand, even though it is widely discredited as a crude catch-all term for a diverse demographic – see this blog). It also follows a pretty brutal article in the Daily Telegraph last week, with a mum moaning about giving her children lifts despite the fact they live in the middle of nowhere (which we assume was her choice!)

It begins with an anecdote about the (allegedly) extreme narcissistic behaviour of one young employee who was helping to organise a charity event, demanding that a photo of her be digitally altered to make her look better. (Rather than trying to help this young woman with her body image problems, the employer in question decided it would be better to have a good whinge in a national newspaper article instead.)

This was the launching point for a fairly devastating attack on millennials and their spoilt ways. We can all probably identify somebody who has done something extreme in our lives – but would we say they represented a whole generation?

The article also quoted research that shows how millennials require guidance, have a strong sense of entitlement and display poor decision making skills, although I take this with a pinch of salt, speaking as a journalist who notices there was no citation for this research. Even if it was true, I was under the impression that 20 somethings were starting out their careers, didn’t have it all sussed out and er, DID require guidance and help with their decision-making. How is that any different today than it has been in the past? Is it really the case that the older generation expects young people to be fully functioning, perfect robots who don’t make mistakes?

Take the employer mentioned in the article who, instead of gently putting ruder young employees in their place and managing them so they develop the proper manners, has opted to discriminate against all younger applicants in future based on some bad experiences.

By their very nature, workplaces throw up all kinds of personal and professional struggles. I have been in various work environments over the years, with time spent on the job lasting from 1 day (yes really) to nearly 2 years. In almost every workplace, I’ve witnessed some pretty outrageous behaviour – but none of it has come from millennials.

In fact, the vast majority of millennials I’ve come across are hard-working, prepared to put in the hours and happy to be told what to do – sometimes to a fault. If you ask me, the biggest dilemma facing any young worker today is not how to get as much as possible from the least amount of work (as the article implies) but how to get on in the workplace, make contacts and allies and get a good reputation without being a total bloody walkover.

Here are the facts; graduate pay has plateaued since the 1990s. The huge growth of higher education, and the numbers of young people signing up to it, means we now have an enormous problem of degree inflation. This means young people are acquiring qualifications that WOULD have entitled them to a job a generation ago, but are now becoming redundant.

I don’t blame young people for feeling peeved if they’ve lived off a loan (and sometimes Pot Noodle-esque squalor) for three – seven years while studying, possibly working menial jobs during that time, then graduate with stocking student debts only to discover their qualifications range from “worthless” to “yea, pretty good, but…”

The hoops that young people now have to jump through to be employable – reaching grade 8 flute, becoming a black belt Judo master, being fluent in 16 languages – to get into a good university or workplace these days are increasingly elaborate, requiring more and more hard work at school and “continual professional development” thereafter.

We’re looking at an entirely different work landscape to the one that confronted the older generations at the start of their careers. The accrual of “soft skills”, sophisticated digital knowledge and a keen sense of enterprise has never been more important. Jobs aren’t for life, workplace pension contributions wouldn’t feed your gerbil in retirement and the mounting costs of rent, commuting, eating and everything else required to survive mean we have to constantly keep an eye out for better opportunities.

We don’t want to be exploited, we want to fulfil as much of our potential as possible and we don’t want to give up our lives for a ruthless employer who gives us a basic pay, pension and quality of life. What on earth is wrong with that? And what’s more, it’s in society’s interest that we have this ambitious outlook – it desperately needs our ingenuity, energy and innovative thinking, much of which can only be done outside the traditional confines of a stuffy workplace.

We were taught to value progress, to look for a better way and to settle for nothing less than the best we can get. If all those are negative values – and I’m not sure they are – they were ones taught by babyboomers, who rode a property boom and unprecedented economic growth to become the affluent consumers and workers they are today.

They have passed on a keen sense of aspiration, high standards and even perfectionism – the real tragedy is that even those things aren’t enough to guarantee of financial security in the long run. We’re only the way we are through necessity, rather than choice.

And who created the socio-economic mess that young people face today? I think we know who….so come on babyboomers. Cut us some slack; after all, you played a fairly big role in making us who we are. It’s about time you either got on board with who we are and what we’re about or leave us to get on with it.

And yes, you’ve got a lot to teach us – but maybe, just maybe, we’ve got something to teach you too!

One thought on “Are millennials spoilt brats – or do we deserve a break?

  • February 23, 2017 at 11:39 am

    The anecdote of the photo I have experience of. When I was in London last year, we held a boxercise class in Grosvenor Square after work. One evening the official photographer for Grosvenor Estates approached and asked the group if he could take photo’s for publicity etc. All 14 of us said yes (mainly men aged 35+) apart from one female aged about 24yo who wanted to see the photos before she would give approval.
    I’ve basically given up offering advice to millennials now, as the common attitude/response you get is that they know everything and nobody else knows anything – the world was created on 1st January 2001, wasn’t it?


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