Generation Y

detail of John William Waterhouse's "Echo and Narcissus"

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

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

Best Quote:  Dr. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: “We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back.”

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.

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7 Responses to Generation Y

  1. Aerocles says:

    Thanks for the quote and link. While I do appreciate the perspective of employers and professors who’ve encountered some of the negative traits associated with those in my generation, I feel that some of the discussion on the topic has been a bit, well, one-sided. As such, the trend has become, however temporarily, to over-generalize and stereotype in a way that often leads to self fulfilling prophecies. Each “generation gap” will grow wider in proportion to the situations in which those comprising said generations are raised. The plethora of technological tools, the ever-growing cultural and economic globalization, and, possibly most impactful, the widespread availability of information and opinion on never before seen scales, are all major forces that have shaped Gen Y – forces that weren’t around to influence previous generations. So, what qualifications must one have to accurately determine what affects this societal evolution should and shouldn’t have?
    In regard to certain things like poor grammatical skills or not dressing well for job interviews…well, these aren’t necessarily “bad” things. They aren’t necessarily “good” either. But it’s all up for interpretation. Perhaps, in our attempts to filter and prioritize the constant barrage of information to which we’ve been subjected for our entire lives, some of us have sacrificed grammar for the sake of more relevant, timely knowledge.
    Grammar may have ranked high on the list of criteria for success in years past, but who’s to say that this is still the case?
    I think it’s a matter of changing rules. The govorning factors and forces that drive the development of a generation will no longer remain the same from one decade to the next, as technological evolution maintains a course of exponential progression. All we can to is observe the parallel paths of technology and culture and do our best to reserve making judgements rooted in differences, perceived or real, and defied expectations…
    I think.

    • docdlp says:

      I appreciate your response, and I agree with much of what you said–both in your reply and in the post of yours I quoted. Of course things change from one generation to the next. As a member of the previous generation (i.e. the ones most commonly perceived as grungy, nihilistic slackers), I completely understand how irritating it is for people to generalize about a group while neglecting to mention the exceptions to the common behaviors of only a portion of that group. That said, however, I take issue with a couple of points in your response.
      (1) I think you’re guilty of setting up a false dichotomy when you suggest that, due to the constant barrage of information, some find it necessary to sacrifice grammar “for the sake of more relevant, timely knowledge.” I’m not sure why such a sacrifice is necessary. How much extra time does it really take to use the word “their” instead of the word “there” or to use a period at the end of a sentence rather than using a comma and making an otherwise lovely idea seem unfocused because of a comma splice or run-on? And sure, I’ve been guilty of omitting an apostrophe in a contraction when I’m texting someone. But that’s a different form of communication from what the business leaders I quoted were concerned with. A text or casual e-mail isn’t quite the same thing as, say, a resume, a cover letter, a grant proposal, or an annual report to be sent to the Board of Trustees. I think we all–including Gen Y kids–are smart enough to be able to discern that different environments and tasks allow for different modes of communication. We can choose accordingly without sacrificing grammar when it matters.
      (2) Again, yes, rules and expectations change from generation to generation. But wouldn’t it benefit a 22-year-old college graduate to consider that sometimes the people they’re asking for jobs have their own set of expectations as well? If you want a job from a Baby Boomer, that might mean you should show up at his/her office dressed in a way that fits his/her perception of what is appropriate business wear. If you’re applying for a job at Apple and you’re interviewing with Steve Jobs, go ahead and rock the flip-flops, jeans, and mock turtleneck. If you’re interviewing with Donald Trump, don’t expect that such an ensemble would fly. It’s a variation of the “golden rule”: “the one who has the gold makes the rules.” And is that profoundly unfair? Perhaps. But do you want the job or not? I think the complaints about Gen Y’s tendency toward narcissism and entitlement are exemplified and reinforced by the frequently-manifested Gen Y attitude that the world at large should conform to their own values and priorities, and that they should be free to do whatever they want without facing any potential negative repercussions. If the person who has the potential to give you or deny you a job wants you to wear pants instead of shorts at work, and wants you to write grammatically correct business letters, you are absolutely free to withdraw your candidacy for that position. In my opinion, though, you shouldn’t expect sympathy when you find yourself unemployed as a result.

  2. katie says:


    this is really fascinating. being a member of generation y myself, i’m particularly interested in these studies. there’s that narcissism again!

    no, but all jokes aside, i’ll be the first one to admit that my generation is pretty fucked up. we are whiny and entitled and really fucking competitive. i mean, take, for instance, the fact that college students are willing to actually pay a company to provide them with a summer internship. well, maybe they’re not necessarily doing the paying — daddy is, naturally. but the point is, this type of shit exists. and continues to exist, because people continue to support it. i mean, come on. you can network. you can use your school’s resources. you can use the internet. why must there be a company in the world that you PAY so that you can get a JOB where you work for FREE? does that make any sense? no.

    but i don’t think we’re terrible wastes. i don’t think we have everything wrong. workplace attire? attire in general? come on. some of us are pretty fashionable. all of us are trying to express ourselves. if we’re expressing disdain in the meantime, demonstrating a poor attitude through clothing choice — why is that? perhaps we’re expressing disdain for the very system that imposes “rules” or “codes of decency” on these choices. perhaps it’s just our way of saying “fuck you” to the suit and tie. and, frankly, the suit and tie is pretty outdated. there are workplaces that function well with employees in casual dress. i think that’s just something that certain people want to hold on to in order to stop their world from changing too quickly. and in response to your previous comment regarding “he who has the gold makes the rules,” and how we should conform dress choices to please the potential employer — perhaps we’re merely suggesting better rules. perhaps every workplace would function better if people weren’t constrained in uncomfortable clothing, and if they could allow their personalities to be more apparent through their clothing choices, thus giving them a sense of individuality while at the workplace. they’d feel more content and less like a sheep. i think maybe it has something to do with the fact that the people who have the gold just don’t like to be questioned. but it’s essentially too late. we’re a freethinking generation. as that blogger from oberlin said, we’re socially progressive. and isn’t social progressivism a good thing? i think so. then again, i’m a part of this whole mess.

    it’s sort of sad, though. baby boomers were socially progressive. then they acquired the gold. now they want to make the rules. is that what happens? because holy shit — that’s depressing.

    anyway, these are just some thoughts. i hope they don’t offend you, but if they do, i apologize. sincerely. and hopefully, there are some students who can still touch you, or make you think, or brighten your day. hopefully we’re not all fuck-ups.


    • docdlp says:


      Thanks for the comments. And for the record, I’m not intending to bash an entire generation. I’ve had loads of great students who are exceptions to the general stereotypes of Gen Y, but I’ve had my share of students who are textbook examples of the complaints people have about them. I also think it’s the job of the next generation, whichever generation that is, to challenge and improve the status quo. As you said, Baby Boomers challenged those who came before them, just as Gen X challenged the Boomers, and now your generation is challenging mine. That’s the way it has happened for centuries. This is one of my favorite things to talk about in my classes, by the way: how each generations produces writers, artists, musicians, and thinkers who either entirely reject what has come before them or take it to a whole new level. (Rock-n-roll grows from blues and country, punk rejects rock-n-roll, grunge builds on punk, etc.)

      And I’m always optimistic when I hear how Gen Y kids are generally much more socially progressive than their predecessors. That makes me hopeful for the future. The trick, however, is being able to get into positions of power where they (you) can actually have the opportunity to turn that social progressivism and tolerance into something meaningful on a broader social scale. Know what I mean? If you want to help make a business more fair and tolerant and honest, it’s easier–I believe–to do that as a member of that company rather than by protesting outside their offices. And if that means you have to briefly sell your soul by putting on shoes instead of flip-flops and maybe a business jacket rather than a t-shirt when you go for your interview, isn’t that ultimately worth it for the greater good? Younger generations pretty much always resist the “rules” established by those in power. But those in power have absolutely no motivation to change those rules since they’re working quite well for them. And the people who work there get to make the rules, not the people who refuse to dress up for an interview and therefore don’t get hired. Is that fair? Probably not. But it’s the way it works.

      Finally, one last point about internships: there’s been lots of talk about this among college faculty and administrators over the past couple years. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a newspaper for college faculty and staff, has had lots of stories about this. You might also be interested to check out this story in the New York Times.

      • katie says:

        “The trick, however, is being able to get into positions of power where they (you) can actually have the opportunity to turn that social progressivism and tolerance into something meaningful on a broader social scale.”

        so, so true. i agree with you wholeheartedly on this and you make valid points. personally, i have a hard time playing “the game.” but you’re right, sometimes it’s necessary if you’re working towards a larger goal. and someday i’ll learn. for now, though, just fucking around.

        re: internships. imo, it’s pretty inhumane and terrible. not because people are working for free (if they choose to do so), but because it’s so limiting for those who can’t afford it. an internship provides a foot in the door to so many companies. and if you’ve got to put food on the table for yourself & pay your rent, you can’t afford that luxury. it’s just sad. and i feel like so many people are now modeling their lives after shit like “the hills,” where everyone has a glamourous job, and they feel like the way to get there is to start with a glamourous internship. it’s fucked up, like so many things! 😉

        anyway, also wanted to say thanks for the nice comment on my blog! really sweet of you, glad my playing devil’s advocate didn’t rub you the wrong way.


  3. C-mor says:

    I believe that we are most definitely the apathetic generation. We are a generation of pointless socialites, reality t.v. about socialites and people who are too lazy to help themselves, and we are the generation of convenient technology. Not only that, but we’re the “I want it now” generation. We expect or feel “entitled” to get what we want. And to get it now. I’m not gonna lie, I felt that after 4 years of college and lead roles in mainstage productions that I should have graduated college with a theatre job. I felt that I deserved that. Even though I only went to a few auditions, I felt entitled to get at least one job offer. The truth is that I should have gone to more auditions and that I should have sucked-up to people way more than I did. But I didn’t so I had to learn from that. And I think that that is the flip side of our generation. We can choose to learn from our laziness, and make a change and try harder. Or we can remain lethargic and entitled, and watch as our generation lets the economy bury us deeper.

    As in every generation, it’s all about what you do and the choices you make. If you choose to dress nicely for an interview (whether its in a suit or just clean), I think that it is showing effort and respect for former generations. I mean, our generation was raised by the generation who had to work their asses off to get by. Yet, I think they are also at fault because the brought us up trying to give us the things that they didn’t have and being more lenient on us. My parents were strict on us, but they also spoiled us rotten. Trust me, we were reminded constantly that we were so lucky to have all the things that we have. And we are. And if more of Gen. Y realized that, the better off we’d be. We’ve stopped appreciating and respecting things which is one of our major downfalls.

    Honestly, I’m more worried about the next generation…these kids are ten times worse. This is the generation who have cell phones at age 5 and know more about how to use the internet than people twice their age. Not only will they feel entitled, but they’ll feel advanced beyond their elders. Which means more arrogance and more disrespect. I want to hope that this won’t be true, but these kids spend more time texting than they do talking to each other…I’m a little worried.

    Of course, Gen. Y isn’t all bad. Some of us have become extremely involved in politics and the environment. Also, some of the most interesting theatre is coming out of Gen. Y. I’m proud of us in a lot of ways, but I definitely don’t disagree with a lot of the complaints about us.

    Sorry if this is really scattered, but I’m writing quickly and watching True Blood. It’s hard to do at the same time…

    That’s what she said!!! Typical Gen. Y response :))

  4. Pingback: So here’s the thing… « TV is my frenemy.

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