Over the years, the word ‘millennial’ has come to elicit many negative associations. Even just hearing the word, you may feel as though it’s embarrassing to be identified in that group, and millennials themselves may feel shameful in recognizing that their own age puts them into such an unpopular category. Among the many characteristics associated with a millennial, they are often considered to be entitled, selfish, lazy, and attached to their phones. However, while it’s easy to look down on the younger, naïve generation, this negative stereotype existed long before Y2K.
The narrative of self-involved youngsters has been passed from one generation to the next. In fact, the Baby Boomers were the original “Me Generation,” and Generation X was labeled even more narcissistic than the Baby Boomers. What this trend actually represents is that it isn’t generations that differ heavily from one to the next, but rather young people may simply act more selfishly than their elders. And, while younger folks may lack some real-world experience that comes with age, millennials are hardly the caricatures that they are portrayed as in the media.
Among the challenges for today’s millennials entering into the workforce, their unique circumstances make them appear more selfish than prior generations. As anyone looks to begin their careers, they want a good-paying job, ways to pay off student loan debt, and may be looking to get married or buy a home. However, for a generation entering the workforce in the aftermath of the Great Recession, millennials have found that with rising student debt, stagnating wages, and high competition, getting started in life has not been easy. As a result, they may look for any way possible to get an edge up in the workplace.
Millennials, while not the first generation to be afforded less respect in the workplace, are particularly stereotyped as unmotivated: from the view of many senior professionals, they are addicted to social media, and they crave accolades that they have yet to earn. However, there is research that suggests otherwise.
In addition to feeling as though they are not taken seriously, millennials entered the job market at a time when the unemployment rate was at an all-time high, and they are afraid of losing their jobs. As a result, many in this generation aren’t actually lazy at all—according to Harvard Business Review, they’re work martyrs. A work martyr goes one step beyond a workaholic; not only are millennials working a lot, but they will make more personal sacrifices in order to stay on top of their work or prove that they are an indispensable employee. This fear of being replaceable is evident: while only 17% of Baby Boomers and 19% of Gen Xers gave up unused vacation time they had earned, Harvard Business Review noted that 24% of Millennials did the same—even though as younger employees, they earn less time off.
In addition to fearing unemployment, millennials have gotten used to working more for less pay. While they accepted lower wages in the wake of the recession, there is also an overall trend of stagnating wages over the last 40 years. More specifically, according to the Economic Policy Institute, wages of young college graduates have been falling since 2000. Average hourly wages in 2001 for men and women were $18.55—a figure which fell to $16.99 by 2013.
Part of this ‘workaholic’ characterization also comes from the fact that millennials typically work longer hours than their coworkers—though not necessarily in the office. While many consider millennials’ attachment to their phones as a bad thing, they are looking at more than just Instagram—they’re also checking email. As the first fully-connected generation, millennials have never left the office at 5:00 pm fully unplugged from work. Because they are always connected, they have a harder time drawing clear divisions when it comes to work-life balance, and they’ll usually answer that important email coming through after-hours.
While millennials may still be young, the simple fact that they are handier with a smartphone and may lack experience is hardly a reason to paint them as more narcissistic or lazy than previous generations, as many older professionals used to be not so different from them. As the largest segment of the workforce, millennials will continue to grow into their shoes and prove that they are more than capable to thrive in the workforce.
Edward Fleischman is the founder and CEO of The Execu|Search Group