By now, many of us have seen the controversial viral video by author Simon Sinek about the problems with the millennial generation (those born after 1982). He argued that the primary reasons for the “Millennial Problem” — an ambiguous phrase denoting a general millennial dissatisfaction with life and the workplace — stem from a generational proclivity for entitled and impatient behavior. He then traces these behavioral trends back to the source: the pampering by over-protective parents and the immediacy of the digital age. With higher expectations in life and less patience for the journey, millennials feel largely ignored by a workplace culture that is often uninviting, sluggish, and apathetic to their interests.
Sinek’s argument is one of many attempts to explain the image of the millennial generation as a group of apathetic, impatient, and entitled kids. What makes his argument especially appealing to millennials, however, is his utilization of relatable anecdotes, shifting the blame of the millennial problem onto our environment, rather than our personhood. These anecdotes include the caricature of the overbearing mother, the replacement of dating interactions with Tinder, and the addictive capacities of social media. This all leads to a blameless yet pessimistic conclusion: our generation is characterized by failed parenting strategies, inaccurate expectations for job satisfaction, and a lack of communication skills.
As Princeton students who will become the leaders of this generation, it is time we re-examined the many cultural attitudes surrounding the behaviors of millennials. By identifying the cultural incentives behind the modern rhetoric of millennial entitlement, I urge us to refashion the “Millennial Problem” into one of “Millennial Opportunity.”
Many studies have corroborated the characteristics of the millennial “problem.” According to a Deloitte study of over 7,700 millennials, many millennials express little loyalty to their current employers (66 percent are expected to leave their current job in the next five years) and this is caused by a few reasons: they feel underutilized and believe that their work does not cultivate leadership skills, they are skeptical about the intentions of corporations, and they tend to place their personal values over organizational goals.
The study affirms many of the criticisms about our generation. Indeed, millennials do tend to be less satisfied with their current job and they do exhibit less tolerance for challenging work situations. Yet, these baseline facts do not lead, in any logical manner, to the conclusion that millennials have a problem — an inclination toward excessive idealism, immaturity, entitlement, impatience, all vices with an intrinsically negative connotation. Despite Sinek’s assurance that these “problems” do not stem from our own natural proclivities, his duplicitous empathy belies a hazardous prejudice of his generation: one that has reframed the millennial outlook on life as a pathology. Through no fault of their own, they have become unequipped to deal with the basic truths of the real world: that life is an uphill battle, a struggle for happiness, and a lesson in patience. Cultural attitudes that are shaped by the older generation have essentially framed our unique attitudes toward life as an immaturity, one that must be “cured.”
There is no reason why the data of millennial behavior should be taken in such a direction. In fact, we delude ourselves when we continue to frame differences between the old and the new as an issue of right and wrong, when we venerate the status quo rather than our differences, when we silence new ideas rather than pave the way for an alternative future. The millennial “problem” is a prime example of this phenomenon, where cultural ideologies — institutional and corporate ideals surrounding devotion and hard work — are recast as benign empiricism.
In reality, the millennial tendency to emphasize personal values over corporate loyalty can have beneficial effects on both corporate and personal interests. By emphasizing personal values, millennials challenge the traditional norms of privileging institutional interests over personal interests. In doing so, we begin to redefine the meaning of work by mobilizing personal values to shape work values, rather than the other way around. The high attrition rate in the workplace among the millennial generation may be detrimental to short-term company investments but possibly beneficial for long-term stability. This is because high attrition rates not only push companies to be active in improving their work environments, but they also guarantee that those who actually stay are truly happy where they are. Finally, millennial attitudes can remove the stigma associated with quitting a job for those who truly are dissatisfied yet unsure whether their concerns are valid.
It is necessary to identify the normative perspectives that pervade the explanations for millennial dissatisfaction in the workplace, where the corporate values of patience and tolerance are taken to be an immutable reality. In fact, one could argue that the current “reality,” that of the current corporate culture, was instigated by the values of a previous generation. As a new generation takes the reign, it is precisely the time when realities shift. Millennial values are not wrong; they are simply different and worth exploring further.
The negative attitudes toward millennial behavior have also been attributed to the cyclical pattern of older generational discontent with the younger. However, these arguments seem too quick to belittle the observations of social media on the behaviors of millennials. We must acknowledge the ways in which cultural and technological currents have marked our generation different from the rest; yet, we must also be vigilant of occasions when these observations take a moralistic turn. When the particularities of the millennial situation are framed as an inherent problem that should be fixed, we must call out its particular incentives.
It’s true that millennials have a different set of values than our previous generations. We tend to be more skeptical of corporate motivations and more particular about our ideal jobs. But where Sinek and I disagree is in the meaning of this millennial mentality. Where he sees entitlement, I see opportunity. Where he sees impatience, I see tenacity. Where Sinek sees a world bathed in corporate tradition, I see a future animated with personalized meaning.
Chang Che is a comparative literature major from Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.