Gen Y workers get a bad rap in the workplace, with many a geezer complaining that
their work ethic is less developed than their sense of entitlement. But is that really
Yes, according to new research that’s yielded actual data to back up that notion.
In a series of studies using surveys that measure psychological entitlement and narcissism,
University of New Hampshire management professor Paul Harvey found that Gen Y respondents
scored 25 percent higher than respondents ages 40 to 60 and a whopping 50 percent
higher than those over 61.
In addition, Gen Y’s were twice as likely to rank in the top 20 percent in their level
of entitlement — the “highly entitled range” — as someone between 40 and 60, and four
times more likely than a golden-ager.
Harvey’s conclusion? As a group, he says, Gen Yers are characterized by a “very inflated
sense of self” that leads to “unrealistic expectations” and, ultimately, “chronic
And if you think the Gen Yers in your workplace are oversensitive as well as entitled,
Harvey’s findings back that up, too. Today’s 20-somethings have an “automatic, knee-jerk
reaction to criticism,” he says, and tend to dismiss it.
“Even if they fail miserably at a job, they still think they’re great at it.”
Of course, to be fair, there’s another stereotype about Gen Yers. They may be high-maintenance,
but they’re committed and idealistic, and determined to do work they believe in. A
No, according to another study, which will be published in the Journal of Management
in September. Co-author Stacy Campbell, an assistant professor of management at Kennesaw
State University, says the study revealed that when it comes to work, the two things
Gen Yers care most about are a) high salaries, and b) lots of leisure time off the
“They want everything,” says Campbell. “They want the time off. They want the big
To reach their conclusions, Campbell and co-author Jean Twenge — a professor of psychology
at San Diego State and author of “Generation Me,” a book examinning discontent among
members of Gen Y — worked over the data from an ongoing survey of high school students
conducted annually since 1975 by the University of Michigan. Among their findings
was that while both Gen Y and Gen X want sizable salaries, Gen X workers show greater
awareness that a hefty paycheck comes with a hefty workload.
“The findings really support the idea that they’re entitled,” says Campbell.
All this leads to a question: Where exactly does this tsunami of privilege come from?
As Harvey puts it: “We’re wondering, how do they end up like this?”
The answer, he thinks, can be found in a reworking of the children’s song “Frere Jacques”
that he once heard elementary-school students sing. Instead of braying the original
French chorus, the kids instead sang, “I am special/I am special.”
Entitlement “gets ingrained in the formative years,” says Harvey. “It stems from the
self-esteem movement, telling kids, ‘You’re great, you’re special,’” he says.
Echoing the findings in Twenge’s “Generation Me,” Harvey says the “ultimate irony”
of jamming unwarranted notions of self-worth into youngsters like corn down a goose’s
throat is that it has the unintended effect of higher rates of depression in Gen Y.
“You see high levels of disappointment,” he notes, adding that unwarranted self-esteem
acts as a shield until the ugly truth intrudes.
Recognizing that is easier than fixing it, he says, noting that excising entitlement
from the minds of Gen Yers can be a daunting task. It was thought that giving entitled
Gen Yers small bits of feedback a la their beloved Twitter might do the trick, but
one study found that approach actually made the problem slightly worse, says Harvey.
The quandary is one that both Gen Yers and their employers will eventually have to
confront as Gen Y increases its presence in the workplace, says Campbell, adding that
each will have to meet the other halfway.
If not, there’s calamity brewing.
“There’s a chance we’re going to have a group of disappointed and disgruntled employees,”
she says. “Surely there could be a crisis if no one budges — where Gen Y says, ‘I
want everything,’ and the company says, ‘You’re not getting anything.’”