(Note: I was inspired to experiment with this form by a guest post on Sean Stannard-Stockton’s Tactical Philanthropy blog by Nonprofit Finance Fund Capital Partners founder George Overholser. I hope you enjoy it.)

  • An oft-heard complaint about Generation Y (and other “emerging leaders”) is that they have a sense of entitlement—that they think they are smarter than everyone else.
  • I don’t believe that people in Generation Y are any smarter than generations that came before.
  • HOWEVER, here’s something I do believe:
    • The people in Generation Y that YOU DEAL WITH in YOUR OFFICE are very likely smarter than the people who would have been in that office in earlier generations.
    • Which means that they may well be smarter than YOU!
  • The secret power of Generation Y is not that we’re smarter: it is that we are MORE
    • More numerous: the population of the world is 6.7 billion, 81% higher than it was in 1970.
    • More highly educated: 29% of Americans age 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees now, compared to 11% in 1970.
    • More professional: Nearly one-third of employed Americans work in the so-called “creative class” (i.e., white-collar professions), compared to about a fifth in 1970.
    • More egalitarian: the percentage of women in the workplace has shot up both domestically (from 43% to 59% between 1970 and 2006) and internationally, and racial barriers to employment have lessened significantly.
    • More ambitious: The number of high-quality colleges that offer meaningful financial aid has exploded; many more scholarships exist for talented low-income individuals.
    • More international: Enrollment by foreign residents in US colleges and universities is up significantly in recent decades.
    • More technologically able: More about the technology than the people; the Internet has completely revolutionized the way we communicate and think about opportunity.
  • The result of all of these factors is that the size of the qualified labor pool who applies for things like entry-level arts administration jobs in the United States is much, much higher than it used to be.
    • Sure, the number of arts administration jobs has increased, too. But based on the cultural economics literature I’ve been reading recently, I’m not convinced that this is taking place any faster than overall US growth in GDP. My hunch is that the qualified labor pool has increased much more.
  • What happens when the pool of qualified candidates increases relative to the opportunities available?
    • Let’s take the Olympics as an example.
    • China won zero gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympic games, out of 195 total.
    • In 2008, China won 51 gold medals, or 17% of the total—more than any other nation.
    • Does this mean Chinese athletes are infinitely better in 2008 than they were in 1972?
      • Of course not – it means that far more Chinese have the opportunity to compete for a gold medal in 2008 instead of toiling in the rice fields or sweat shops for their entire lives.
      • The talent was always there – but now less of it is getting wasted because of discrimination, prejudice, income inequality, and social fragmentation.
    • So Chinese athletes presumably had no more natural talent in 2008 than they did in 1972—
      • But the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 2008 were more talented than the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 1972.
  • Take this metaphor to arts administration in 2009.
    • It’s not that Generation Y is any smarter than the generations that came before.
    • It’s that more of us have the opportunity to compete for arts administration jobs – which, despite their flaws, are pretty awesome compared to careers many of our ancestors were stuck with instead.
    • As a result, the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs (who are the ones who get them) are smarter, on average, than the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs in a previous era (who are the ones now leading arts organizations).
      • (Assuming, again, that the growth in the number of arts admin jobs has not kept pace with the rise in qualified candidates for those jobs. Let’s just say I would be really, really surprised to learn otherwise.)
  • But wait! That’s not all!
    • Why are Generation Y employees so damn ambitious?
      • (Well, remember, we’re talking about the cream of the crop here—the unambitious ones will probably never get a chance to work with you.)
    • You see, with all of these talented people around us competing for the same jobs and spots in the class and other opportunities, we have to get used to being on top of our game.
    • That means we have to apply to more opportunities to have a decent chance of landing one, which conveniently is made far easier than it used to be by recent advances in technology. (Anyone remember typewriters?)
      • BUT! That means any given opportunity will have more people bidding for it, which makes getting that opportunity EVEN THAT MUCH MORE competitive! And so the cycle continues and feeds upon itself.
    • We have to continually show that we’re better than whomever else you might hire/accept/grant/award, which requires us to have a sharply defined sense of what “better” means.
      • Not to mention a healthy sense of self-confidence. After all, if we’re going to go into an interview and tell you that we’re the best candidate for what you’re offering, we’d better believe it ourselves.
    • If we are pre-disposed to look for and recognize examples of superior performance, is it any surprise if we get impatient when examples of it on our part go unrecognized by our superiors?
      • Is it any surprise, in that situation, that we find ourselves looking outside of our organization for the recognition that we’re failing to get from within it?
  • So to sum up
    • Generation Y is not smarter than anyone else.
    • But the specific members of Generation Y populating your office probably are.
      • And if they are, that’s a testament to your hiring skills! Nice work!
    • Not only that, they probably have their eyes on bigger things than mail merges—because, in fact, they are capable of bigger things.
      • Which is good! Wouldn’t you rather have talented, multifaceted people on your team than folks who are satisfied doing one thing sort-of well?
  • Finally, if you’re reading this and find yourself overcome with intergenerational resentment, you can comfort yourself with this thought:
    • However uncomfortable this may be for you, it’s going to be far worse for us when it’s time for Generation Z or AA or whatever to enter the workplace. All of those trends towards “more” are not likely to let up anytime soon, after all.
    • That’s why it’s critical that we reform our organizations NOW to take proper advantage of great ideas and constructive feedback wherever and whoever they come from, so that we won’t find ourselves in the exact same position 20 years from today.

24 Responses to “Generation Y and the Problem of “Entitlement”: A Bullet-Point Manifesto”

  1. Elisa says:

    You have laid out very good reasoning as to why Generation Y should be valued for it’s insight and intelligence. I fail to see, however, how you have addressed the “problem of entitlement” that is present in Generation Y.
    I view entitlement as a sense of ownership or ability without having proven either. Belief that you might be, for instance, considered for a leadership role directly out of undergrad. Belief that you are such a better teacher/artist/administrator that there is nothing you can learn from those older than you or higher ranking than you. In the corporate world, this sense of entitlement translates into desiring that corner office or high salary without having spent time learning how the business works. Entitlement goes hand-in-hand with our culture of classicism and instant gratification.
    I agree that Generation Y is, on the whole, better educated than the Baby Boomers. But there is a difference between being a good student and being a good organizational employee. Being smart doesn’t make you entitled to anything but higher expectations.

    • Thanks for your comment, Elisa. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that “being smart doesn’t make you entitled to anything but higher expectations.” I couldn’t agree more! Generation Y should absolutely be held to higher expectations than previous generations. The problem, I think, is that many in this generation feel that the expectations of them are actually quite low. That the work they are asked to do does not take advantage of the intellectual capacities that they bring to the table. I’m not suggesting that entry-level jobs should be entirely free of menial work – that’s not realistic – but rather that organizations should be structured to listen to and consider ideas from all of its human assets, regardless of the length of any one individual’s tenure at his or her job.

    • Caitlin says:

      Elisa – you are COMPLETELY correct when it comes to problem of entitlement. As a member of Generation Y – I find that this is the most constant (and obnoxious) problem I find among my peers (“wah…I’m so educated, why doesn’t the boss listen to only ME?!”). They just graduate, find the lucky job in the Arts Admin world, and then EXPECT the grand treatment without even showing that they can take on the tasks in an organized and efficient manner. My peers want raises, respect, and recognition, just for showing up ON TIME. You stated, “there is a difference between being a good student and being a good organizational employee. Being smart doesn’t make you entitled to anything but higher expectations.” I think I may post this on my Facebook page, just so my peers “get it”.

  2. Elisa says:

    Sorry I meant classim not classicism. My mistake!

  3. Jessica Mele says:

    careful not to equate “generation y” with “emerging leaders”. there are plenty of leaders in their 30′s and even 40′s who have yet to ascend to the heights of their field, largely because of a lack of opportunity at upper management levels.

    • Eric Booth says:

      Ian’s shotgun blast of bullet points is very impressive. Let me add a few other generational generalizations that are often posited in such discussions. There are significant social changes over these decades. Boomers stayed in jobs far longer than Xers or Yers do–it is a change in our culture. Boomers were brought up to believe you earned your way up the career ladder through loyalty and stick-to-it-ivness. Today, the Census Bureau tells us that the average Yer will have over five different career paths in a working lifetime–NOT have five different JOBS as Boomer expectations were set, but engagement in five entirely different FIELDS. This change is so enormous we must be careful not to compare apples and oranges in comparing career choices and expectations. Also Yers job hop far more frequently than Boomers did. To some Boomers this is experienced as disloyalty or selfishness, while Yers describe loyalty to the field when they stay within it (even when it doesn’t treat them so well financially).

    • Hi Jessica,
      I hear you, but I focused on Generation Y in my post in order to highlight the differences in the statistics that I was citing (I set it up as a contrast between Generation Y and boomers for maximum effect). I think the generational shifts are a related, but separate phenomenon from the concentration of power in our field at the top and the frustration that many feel as a result of it, regardless of generation. I hope that helps clarify why I wrote this in the way that I did.
      Ian

  4. James Croft says:

    I’m not sure I’m comfortable the framing of the dialog in terms of generational shift – it seems to me far too blunt a conceptual tool to use to describe how the fields of arts administration, education, research and practice will change over the coming years. The factors involved will likely be unique to each field, region and even institution, and I wonder how much the language of generational upheaval adds to the debate. Clearly there is the feeling that there is a need for this kind of discussion, but many of the people I’ve seen posting here are not of the “rising generation”.

    Perhaps different organizational change frameworks would help more in understanding the textured and difficult challenge arts-organizations will face in the future.

  5. I’m an Executive Director at a large NYC-based theatre nonprofit, and I just turned 40…putting me barely outside of the “emerging leader” class, I guess. At meetings with my peers as leaders, though, I’m usually the only Generation X-er at the table populated by Baby Boomers, 10-30 years my senior. There are no Gen-Y present usually in these meetings, unless they’re taking the minutes or pouring the coffee.

    But I’ve hired many Gen-Y’ers over the last decade or so, and through that process, I’ve come to understand why many other E.D.s are exasperated by them generationally. I simply haven’t found the qualities you describe in this piece, Ian, to represent Gen-Y as a whole. Sure, there are exceptions, good and bad. But ambitious? Not usually. Hard-working? Not usually. Educated? Yes, but that is different from smart. Again, this is a sweeping, probably unhelpful generalization based on personal experience, and not true of most of the Gen-Y’s I’ve got in my office now. But it’s honest.

    You are right, however, about entitlement, and the resentment it causes. As you suggest, it may be due to Gen-Y’s educational demographics. I just wish that Gen-Y’s sense of entitlement was partnered with a serious work ethic, a desire to work extremely hard for their spot, rather than have it handed to them. And while it may be true that Gen-Y is simply too smart to want entry-level tasks and is bored by menial work (although that reeks of inflated ego when I read it back), it’s ridiculous to think that previous generations loved these tasks, either. The difference is that we knew we had to do them at the beginning of our careers, because we had the long view in mind.

    I come off sounding terrible here, but I wanted to be honest, because this forum is important. I have some wonderful Gen-Y staffers, but they have been the exceptions to the rule in my experience.

    • Maggie Barrett says:

      In response to Gabriel, you write that it is only the exceptional employees these days with serious work ethics and desires to work extremely hard for their spots. I wonder if this has not always been the case?

      • Rachel C says:

        I think it has always been the case, and I suspect Gabriel would agree. The difference is that past generations didn’t consider themselves to be over-educated and under-used while also not having a good work ethic.

    • Gabriel,
      Not knowing the specifics of your experience, managing style, organization, etc., it’s hard for me to comment on why you feel that the Gen Y employees you’ve worked with don’t live up to their own image of themselves. What I will say is that I feel strongly that the “we paid our dues, so they should have to as well” attitude that you and a few other people have expressed here, while completely understandable, is actually really counterproductive from an organizational standpoint. The fact is that the environmental context for arts organizations now is quite different from when Boomers and Xers were starting their careers, due more than anything else to the Internet and word-processing technology. I would respectfully suggest that working hard is no longer as important as working smart. There’s a common joke among computer programmers to the effect that they are successful at what they do because they are lazy. After all, every task they can get a machine to do for them is one less thing they have to do themselves. Of course, every task they get a machine to do for them improves the efficiency of whatever they’re working on, as well. Laziness combined with intelligence and ambition is a powerful motivator for finding new ways of improving productivity. Now, obviously a strong work ethic on top of that is even better – I would never dispute that. I also don’t mean to imply that people in Gen Y never exhibit real attitude problems or unjustified self-confidence. All I’m saying is that the (very human) urge to shut someone down when we feel they’re out of line, especially when indulged over and over again, is a great way to build an organization that has a culture of being closed to new ideas. And that is not a good thing for a field that fundamentally is all about creativity.

      • Hi Ian,

        I think there’s a happy medium between what you and Gabriel are highlighting. On the one hand, I agree with you that shutting up younger employees when they bring new ideas to the table is counter-productive. I am lucky enough to work in an office where our Executive Director cultivates a culture of participation, and we have had meetings where we will invite our interns in to brainstorm or give feedback. This is useful to the organization because it leaves the door open for new ideas and it also keeps employees at every level engaged.

        In that thought, though, you reference an employee being “out of line.” Unfortunately, the “entitlement” issue can often lead to young employees speaking out of line – interrupting or going on for too long or sharing ideas before they have had a chance to get context. It can also lead to feeling like they are above the menial tasks that they may have been hired to do. This kind of behavior is counter-productive and can also be quite inappropriate and disruptive. There’s a lot of value to learning when to speak up. A good idea shared in the wrong way or at the wrong time is much less likely to get noticed or implemented. Someone who is not executing their job well because they think menial tasks are beneath them or unimportant is not likely to be taken seriously.

        Overall, I think managers have a responsibility to find the balance between discouraging the disruptive behavior that can emerge from Gen Y ego/entitlement and encouraging creativity and ideas from the Gen Y staffers even at the entry level. As a result, many managers may need to adapt their managing style when working with the youngest on their workforce. That means the managers need to keep growing as workers themselves. And we all know how uncomfortable growth can be.

        A side note, RE: the laziness: I was lucky enough to be brought up in a home with a strong work ethic and daily examples of that work ethic in my dad’s home doctor office. I always strive to be a conscientious employee, whether entering data or working on marketing strategies. Not everyone grows up with that kind of influence and it’s not necessarily something you learn in college either. That doesn’t make laziness something to be championed, though.

        Nobody begins a new activity as an expert; there really is no substitute for experience. Gen Y still needs to “pay its dues” in the working world but it’s a different kind of dues than past generations. Instead of having to work up from the mail room, my generation needs to take the time in starting positions to learn to play well with others. If we indeed are smarter than previous generations upon entering the workforce, then we should be able to learn more quickly how to influence others in our organizations to affect positive change, how to interact with our older colleagues in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel threatened, and how to get through the grunt work efficiently and thoroughly.

  6. John Abodeely says:

    It seems to me that there is a positive role for a manager to play (regardless of generation) when confronted by a sense of entitlement among his or her team members. That role would be to demonstrate, first hand, the challenges that team members could face when given all they wished for.

    For example, why not find a way to let your entitled team member try something you feel he is not ready for, but he feels he is ready for. See what happens. Maybe the manager will be wrong, maybe the team member will be wrong. Maybe they’ll meet in the middle about it. Something will have been lost, but it sounds like a good long-term investment to me.

    • John, I’ve tried this, on numerous occasions. In my experience, it worked positively exactly once — a task accomplished well, and a sense of accomplishment from the person involved. In every other instance, though, it resulted in either sub-par work, a spiritually damaged employee (because they realize, maybe before anyone else, that they’re not cutting it), or both. Throwing employees in the deep end and telling them to swim or drown seems…well, I struggle to find the win-win on a regular basis.

      And to Ian: I’d like to respond to this portion of your earlier post…

      <<>>

      I’d settle for working smart, especially if it were, as you imply, indistinguishable to my Gen-X eyes from working hard. But frankly, I don’t see a lot of smart work from Gen-Y staffers…I see fumbling married to entitlement. I see them repeating tasks because they never actually “learned” the task in the first place, or were too busy searching for a quick (lazy, in your parlance?) workaround. I find that they never learned the rules of grammar in school, or to adequately spell, because they’ve always had spell check…but then they turn in official documents that haven’t been spell-checked at all.

      And far too often, my Gen-Y staff expresses a desire to bypass history, context, experience, and the business of the arts…and that aversion to “hard work” never receives the balances you suggest through the leveraging of technology, new pathways of work, or increased efficiency. Just because my 25-year-old administrator can use Facebook and my 55-year-old administrator can’t doesn’t make them smarter, or more valuable, or a better overall employee. There is more at play than that.

      And yes, computers and technology make work and business infinitely better and more productive, and workers who have intuitive skills to use them are wonderful assets. But in the arts, and especially in the performing arts (where I’m located), it’s not necessarily the advantage it might be on Wall Street….certainly not the only measurable asset (or the only one needed).

      I feel like I’m coming down hard on Gen-Y, and I don’t mean to. I hate generalizations, and everything I’ve said here is true of some people and untrue of others. So please, take my whining with a grain of salt. :-)

      • Hi Gabriel,
        I can’t really argue with anything you say here – you’re right, it depends a lot on specific individuals and in offices of 3, 6, 10 people, we’re talking about very small sample sizes. :) The only thing that comes to mind is that maybe if writing/spelling ability is really important to you and you’re not getting employees who can write/spell, there are changes you could make to your process to get at that skill more effectively. For example, you could give them a homework assignment at the interview (e.g., writing an acknowledgement letter or whatever) and ask for it back the next day. Anyway, something to think about, perhaps.

        • Lisa says:

          Hi,
          Interesting post and comments… I definitely fall in the Baby Boomer sector and have seen many of the same challenges discussed in the comments. I must, must take issue with your response to one of Gabriel Shanks’s remarks:

          “The only thing that comes to mind is that maybe if writing/spelling ability is really important to you and you’re not getting employees who can write/spell, there are changes you could make to your process to get at that skill more effectively.”

          Really? … IF writing/spelling ability is important to you? IF? The ability to write and speak articulately and correctly is critical to any job, not matter if it is an entry level job or a senior leadership position. And people seeking jobs in the so-called creative sector should be expected to possess these skills without question. It’s not a matter of giving a “homework” assignment at an interview, though sadly I think it’s come to that. But your comment suggests that the Gen Y’s find this is just one more unimportant/menial detail that Baby Boomers will “use” to keep them down. Perhaps if they could learn to write grammatically correct and typo-free sentences, and letters and proposals that are clear and concise… well, then maybe Baby Boomers could look the other way when GenY’s show up for an interview in flip flops? I don’t know, just a thought.

    • John, I’ve tried this, on numerous occasions. In my experience, it worked positively exactly once — a task accomplished well, and a sense of accomplishment from the person involved. In every other instance, though, it resulted in either sub-par work, a spiritually damaged employee (because they realize, maybe before anyone else, that they’re not cutting it), or both. Throwing employees in the deep end and telling them to swim or drown seems…well, I struggle to find the win-win on a regular basis.

      And to Ian: I’d like to respond to this portion of your earlier post…

      [[I would respectfully suggest that working hard is no longer as important as working smart. There’s a common joke among computer programmers to the effect that they are successful at what they do because they are lazy. After all, every task they can get a machine to do for them is one less thing they have to do themselves. Of course, every task they get a machine to do for them improves the efficiency of whatever they’re working on, as well. Laziness combined with intelligence and ambition is a powerful motivator for finding new ways of improving productivity.]]

      I’d settle for working smart, especially if it were, as you imply, indistinguishable to my Gen-X eyes from working hard. But frankly, I don’t see a lot of smart work from Gen-Y staffers…I see fumbling married to entitlement. I see them repeating tasks because they never actually “learned” the task in the first place, or were too busy searching for a quick (lazy, in your parlance?) workaround. I find that they never learned the rules of grammar in school, or to adequately spell, because they’ve always had spell check…but then they turn in official documents that haven’t been spell-checked at all.

      And far too often, my Gen-Y staff expresses a desire to bypass history, context, experience, and the business of the arts…and that aversion to “hard work” never receives the balances you suggest through the leveraging of technology, new pathways of work, or increased efficiency. Just because my 25-year-old administrator can use Facebook and my 55-year-old administrator can’t doesn’t make them smarter, or more valuable, or a better overall employee. There is more at play than that.

      And yes, computers and technology make work and business infinitely better and more productive, and workers who have intuitive skills to use them are wonderful assets. But in the arts, and especially in the performing arts (where I’m located), it’s not necessarily the advantage it might be on Wall Street….certainly not the only measurable asset (or the only one needed).

      I feel like I’m coming down hard on Gen-Y, and I don’t mean to. I hate generalizations, and everything I’ve said here is true of some people and untrue of others. So please, take my whining with a grain of salt. :-)

  7. As someone just over 40, I think that some feelings of “entitlement” and resentment toward “paying your dues” have always existed. They did at least 15-20 years ago when I was just out of college and grad school. I felt I was capable of much more, was being held back by old thinking, and that I was capable of working “smarter.” People generations before me probably felt the same way too. And to those who may think that Gen Y is lazy and lacks ambition, don’t forget that Gen X (literally) wrote the book on being slackers. Conflict between generations is much older than any of us. The difference today is that there’s more media (and social media) attention given to it.

  8. Rachel C says:

    As was mentioned elsewhere, having more education does not make you smarter. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people equate intelligence with education. The two are completely separate entities. You can have a PhD and have relatively low intelligence…while if you’re a genius, that holds true whether you quit school at age 12 or age 38.

    Which brings me to my next point, education doesn’t make you more qualified. I’m an Emerging Leader, but I’ve also hired quite a few Gen-Y’ers for relatively menial jobs. Some were incredibly ambitious and polished in person, yet knew nothing about the simplest office tasks. And although they were unable to competently complete basic work, they became frustrated that I wasn’t giving them more exciting assignments. Then there was the preposterously over-qualified Yale Psychology PhD who took a part-time office gopher position and was Completely Amazing. She was being asked to alphabetize endlessly, answer phones, open mail…many would have balked or whined, but she was always pleasant, meticulous, and happy to do whatever was asked. Everything she did was perfect, always. Best. Employee. Ever.

    If anyone EVER calls me to ask for a reference for her, I will just tell them: Hire Her! Now! You will never regret it!

    Part of being an ideal employee is recognizing your place, your duties, and your lack of experience. It can take time to move up the ranks, but that is time very well spent. There are plenty of ineffective managers out there who rose up the ladder too quickly, and don’t fully understand their field or how to properly manage people.

    • Just to clarify, I mentioned the part about education in my piece mainly because most arts admin jobs require a bachelor’s degree to even be considered. So since more people have bachelor’s degrees, the qualified applicant pool is increased. I couldn’t agree more about the larger point than education does not equal intelligence. (Though, to be fair, pleasantness and meticulousness are also different qualities entirely.)

      • Rachel C says:

        But in the past, Bachelor’s degrees were not required for entry-level positions, and personally I question why they are required now.

        People with an “appropriate” level of education are often not properly educated, which makes their degree a moot point. If you have a Bachelor’s degree in Arts Administration, but you don’t know how to use Microsoft Office, and you don’t have a professional demeanor…I fail to see how you are more qualified than a high school graduate who has real office experience.

        In the end, I agree there is more competition for arts jobs, which should lead to more ‘qualified’ people getting those jobs, but does it?

  9. [...] at an earlier age than previous generations?  This is the position of Ian David Moss who posted a “Manifesto” on the American Arts blog last week. The secret power of Generation Y is not that we’re smarter: it is that we are MORE [...]

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