In my 10 years of teaching I’ve noticed that when college professors gather socially or professionally to complain about their lives, the three most common subjects are (1) a lack of resources (including facilities, equipment, support staff, and/or budget, (2) the unfairness or incompetence of college administrators, and (3) how terrible their lazy, narcissistic, entitled, disrespectful students are.
This blog is about that last complaint.
Let’s start with a few definitions of relevant terms, shall we?
Generation Y: while there is some debate about specific chronological boundaries, this term generally refers the generation of students born in the 1980s and 1990s. (Some authors are more specific. William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book Millennials Rising, set the dates as 1982-2001.) Alternate names for this generation include “The Millenials,” “The Echo Boomers” (since they’re largely the children of the Baby Boom generation), and “Generation Next,” (which, like “Generation Y” itself is a linguistic derivative of the term “Generation X,” which is used to define those born between the late 60s and very early 80s).
There are, however, a few less polite or positive terms used to define this generation. “Generation Me” is a term popularized by a book of the same name written by Dr. Jean M. Twenge, who also wrote (with Dr. Keith Campbell) the book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. (The titles of these two books might give you a sense of her opinions of this generation of American youth.)
Other terms include “the Boomerang Generation”—based on the frequency with which members of this generation return home to live in their parents’ homes after graduating college—and the similarly derisive “the Peter Pan Generation”—suggesting that these kids who fail to find jobs and still live at home after graduating are perhaps unwilling (like Peter Pan) to grow up.
Many discussions of this generation tend to repeatedly use a few common descriptive terms, and I’d like to define those here in case my readers don’t have a dictionary handy.
- Narcissism: inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity
- Solipsism: extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption.
- Self-centered: concerned solely or chiefly with one’s own interests, welfare, etc.; engrossed in self; selfish; egotistical.
- Sense of Entitlement: “expecting rewards without putting in the work or effort to merit the rewards.”
- Whine: to snivel or complain in a peevish, self-pitying way
- Brat: an annoying, spoiled, or impolite child (usually used in contempt or irritation).
Now that we’re clear on the basic terminology, let’s proceed.
A few recently published studies about the characteristics and opinions of this particular generation attracted my attention to this topic.
Researchers at York College of Pennsylvania recently published a study examining the differing attitudes about “work place professionalism” held by Generation Y kids and national business leaders. York has a “Center for Professional Excellence” and part of their work includes a national survey of business leaders and human resources managers. Here’s the essential summary of their findings, as articulated on their website: “The national survey of human resources professionals and business leaders — those who make final hiring decisions — shows that personal professionalism matters most when deciding whether to extend a job offer. The survey also found that a lot of college grads are failing that test.”
A couple specific comments popped out to me as a teacher because I’ve observed similar things in my classes. The York study asked business folks to define what they considered unprofessional:
“The most frequently cited unprofessional traits or behaviors were:
- Appearance, which includes attire, tattoos, and piercings (39.1%)
- Poor communication skills including poor grammar (38.9%)
- Poor work ethic (37.0%)
- Poor attitude (28.3%)
- Being disrespectful and inconsiderate (27.4%)
- Having a sense of entitlement (16.6%).”
(FYI: There’s a downloadable PDF at their site showing the full survey results. Click on the CPE Poll tab at http://www.ycp.edu/cpe/.)
I couldn’t help but notice that sounds pretty much like an accurate description of a great number of students I’ve encountered over the past decade. Not all, thankfully, but enough.
While “sense of entitlement” ranked near the bottom of the list of unprofessional characteristics, over 60% of those surveyed suggested that the sense of entitlement demonstrated by college graduates has increased over the past five years. This growing sense of entitlement is perhaps the most common complaint of the college professors I’ve chatted with about their students.
A New York Times article from February of 2009 highlighted this trend in academia, reporting that “a study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.” This article goes on to cite James Hogge, an associate dean at Vanderbilt University, who says “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’” As a real-life example of this mentality, the Times article quotes a senior at the University of Maryland who says, “I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade. What else is there really than the effort that you put in? […] If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?”
What is the point, indeed? Certainly not learning anything, apparently. College is about grades, not knowledge after all. And “if you put in all the effort you have,” you deserve success, right? If I entered my fat, old self in the New York City Marathon and tried just as hard as I could, I should win, right? It wouldn’t be fair for me not to win, after all, because I put in all the effort I had. (I’ve heard that sarcasm is popular among Gen Y kids.)
Beyond the lack of professionalism plaguing students, their purported lack of empathy has also been under scrutiny lately. A three-decade study was recently released by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. One of the co-authors of the study, Sara Konrath, told US News and World Report, “Many people see the current group of college students — sometimes called ‘Generation Me’ — as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history.”
The York College study and the Michigan study piqued my interest, which lead me to search for related stories online. There are quite a few sources, but I tried to focus on work published by major reputable news sources (rather than say, the blatherings of bitter bloggers—though there are a couple of those too.) The articles I found can be divided into three categories: (1) the “whatsamatter with kids today?” type, which attack the generation as whining, solipsistic brats, (2) the “hey, they’re not so bad really” type, which tends to focus on the liberal hyper-tolerance of the generation, and tend to be written by people under the age of 25, and (3) the “love-em-or-hate-em we have to find ways to financially benefit from them” type, which generally appear in business-related publications. Here’s my guide to the best stuff I found. Let the link-clicking begin!
Category 1: “Hey, you damn kids get offa my lawn!”
College students think they’re so special, featured on MSNBC
Study: College Grads Unprepared For Workplace, featured on NPR
Best Quote: Laura Wand, the director of marketing for Johnson Controls, to a group of prospective job interview candidates: “Dude, dress up. This isn’t the mall.”
The Why-Worry Generation, from The New York Times
Best Quote: about the perception among employers, professors, and mental health experts of Gen Y: “entitled whiners who have been spoiled by parents who overstoked their self-esteem, teachers who granted undeserved A’s and sports coaches who bestowed trophies on any player who showed up.”
Bad Dress, Poor Manners Stall New Generation of Workers, from the Mecklenburg (NC) Times
Best Quote: from Gloria Starr, president of Global Success Strategies, Inc.: “I’ve been in the business 25 years, and in the last five years I’ve seen more graduating students who have no idea as to what is required of them, including how to handle an interview. They cannot formulate a sentence. They don’t know they need to give good direct eye contact. And they don’t know how to dress.”
Narcissism Epidemic Spreads Among College Students, from Discovery News
Best Quote: from Ohio State University Social Psychologist Dr. Amy Brunell: “What this means is that we have generations of people entering the workforce that expect special treatment, are demanding of others and making risky decisions.”
Generation Me, in Newsweek
Best Quote: Author Raina Kelley: “Perhaps, one day, we will say that the recession saved us from a parenting ethos that churns out ego-addled spoiled brats.”
Ten Characteristics of Generation Me, on the blog A Class Act
Best Quote: from Gary Schlee, coordinator of the Corporate Communication and Public Relations program at Centennial College in Toronto: “The cocoon of self-centredness has left young people feeling that they deserve everything right away.”
Category 2: “The Kids Are Alright”
Understanding Generation Y, from The Oberlin Review
Best Quote: from student journalist Sophia Yan: “Members of Generation Y are characterized as being more racially and culturally tolerant than past generations.”
Generation Y: Welcome to Their World, featured on Read Write Web
Best Quote: from “Corvida,” a 20-year-old blogger: “Gen Y is a technologically advanced generation.”
Business Now, a blog site on business from a Generation Y perspective
Best Quote: “In our pursuits we are at once personally selfish and globally philanthropic. We are the future of business, now.”
In Defense of Gen Y: Dispelling the Millennial Myth, on the blog Legends of Aerocles
Best Quote: from self-professed millennial David Teicher, Social Media Manager at McCann Erickson NY: “I don’t feel entitled to anything other than the opportunity to pursue my passions and goals, an entitlement rooted in the inception of American dogma and no more indicative of my generation than any other.”
Category 3: “Let’s Make Lots of Money”
Generation Y: “Today’s teens–the biggest bulge since the boomers–may force marketers to toss their old tricks” from Businessweek
Best Quote: from reporter Ellen Neuborne: “Marketers who don’t bother to learn the interests and obsessions of Gen Y are apt to run up against a brick wall of distrust and cynicism.”
What Gen Y Really Wants, from Time magazine
Best Quote: reporter Penelope Trunk: “Generation Y is forcing companies to think more creatively about work-life balance. The employers who do are winning in the war for young talent.”
Gen Y: A Tough Crowd to Sell, from USA Today
Best Quote: reporter Bruce Horovitz: “Frustrated marketers have concocted their own name for Gen Y: The Unreachables. This is the first generation of Americans that resists reading and increasingly keeps the TV off.”
Marketing to Gen Y, from the website Startup Nation
Best Quote: from Executive Coach Bea Fields, “you cannot directly market to them until you buy into them, until you value their perspective on life.”
If conventional wisdom is correct, of course, I don’t expect any of my Gen Y readers to actually read any of the aforementioned articles…cuz they don’t read. But then again, they’re online sources, so maybe….
I’d love to hear your opinions, experiences, and questions about all this.