Tearing apart her tandoori chicken, my friend lamented bureaucracy. She was one year out of college and one month into a new job as an entry-level sales rep at a Fortune 500.
“Put me in his job,” she said of her CEO, the man atop nearly 5000 employees. “I could do it!”
She seemed oblivious to our generation’s reputation. I’ve been in denial, too. But the evidence is unavoidable: Millennials are entitled.
Less than half of high schoolers in 1976 expected to be managers by age 30. Today, nearly two-thirds do. (In reality, only 18% become managers by 30.) Likewise, millennials expect to find their ideal job right after college. (Yet only 29% of us are currently engaged at work.) Still worse, rates of narcissistic entitlement – believing you deserve better than others – among young people are at an all-time high.
As I’ll address in a later article, millennial entitlement isn’t all bad. But to the extent it corrodes productivity and a healthy work culture, our entitlement is enabled and exacerbated by our employers.
First, companies encourage high new employee expectations by offering them “golden hellos” consisting of flowery job marketing, lavish benefits and unkeepable promises. These “indulgent organizational conditions”, as Queens University industrial psychology professor Glenda Fisk calls them, later increase the likelihood of perceived deprivation.
Secondly, employers ignore entitled behavior. Just as teachers sometimes award high grades to undeserving students to avoid student and parent backlash, organizations turn a blind eye to entitlement in the name of workplace peace. We see it in lenient performance reviews and raises for no real reason. This approach not only reinforces negative behavior, Fisk points out; it may also trigger similar behaviors in others through vicarious learning.
Thirdly, fixed salaries teach employees that they’ll get rewarded the same amount no matter how much they put in. Grade inflation demotivates students because they come to expect more reward from less work. In much the same way, employees work less if paid equally. Moreover, they may gradually expect unconditional rewards elsewhere, too.
But businesses don’t just enable millennial entitlement; they incentivize it.
I once had a boss whose confrontational communication style led several employees to leave the company. Noticing these employees tended to be soft-spoken and acquiescent, I resolved to stand my ground in my new role. I disagreed, spoke my mind and demanded what others were too scared to ask for. My boss soon identified me as “leadership potential”.
Unsurprisingly, entitled people typically score low on agreeableness scales. Their stubbornness is compensated. At least four separate studies have shown that agreeable employees are both more likely to be found in low-wage positions and to report lower income levels. That is, agreeable people earn less both objectively and subjectively than other personalities.
In short, “being nice seems not to pay,” German economics professor Guido Heineck concluded.
Since agreeable people tend to be humble and grateful, one study observed, they may feel indebted to their employers and therefore not ask for more. Entitled people, by contrast, may be more likely to voice wage concerns and less willing to settle for unfavorable outcomes.
So they win.
If the workforce were a Psychology 101 experiment, entitled millennials would be the rats who learn how to get the fruit loops the fastest. Operant conditioning – called “organizational behavior modification” in the work world – shapes our behaviors and, eventually, our personalities and our companies.
My friend is a driven, rising star. Who’s to blame her?
Caroline Beaton is a journalist covering modern work, culture and psychology. Sign up for her newsletter to get her latest articles to your inbox.