Millennials are selfish, and so are the leaders who complain about them

Recently, I came across this article about Gen-Y (millennials) in the workplace. It was fairly typical in that the general point of view it conveyed was that millennials are selfish, entitled and out for themselves. When instead, they should be more grateful for opportunities and have more patience when it comes to their development.

The main reason that people seem to think that millennials are selfish seems to be that they want to achieve something from their work. They want to feel like they are developing, rather than simply wasting their lives. And so they hop from job to job, looking for fulfilment.

Millennials are exposed to an overwhelming amount of information that older generations weren’t. They read about people working remotely while traveling the world. They see stories about how cool it is to work at Google. They read stories of people creating their own businesses. It is easy to see why millennials would then think “Why can’t I have it all, too?”

I’ve led teams of millennials before and I’ve seen fantastic work get done. They want to work, and they want to do something that makes an impact. If you set aside your expectations of how they should be and gently adjust your approach as you go, you’ll get good results.

Leaders who complain that millennials are selfish, are being selfish too

It’s easy to find articles from leaders saying that millennials are selfish, too entitled and never have patience to stay in one role and develop. But why are leaders so upset about this behaviour?

Leaders are upset because it makes their job more difficult. They need to try harder to engage the millennials while Tom from Accounting has been in the same role for 40 years and all he needs is free coffee and internet to remain “happy” at his job.

So, I would argue that leaders are being selfish, too. They simply want millennials to be content with what they have in the workplace and to put up with it. I’ve worked in and consulted to enough organisations to know that good, functional, enjoyable organisational cultures are few and far between. They seem to be the exception, rather than the rule.

I like what the millennial mindset (the stereotypical one, anyway) is doing, because it shines a light on the lack of opportunities available at many workplaces, and the lack of development, coaching and mentoring that occurs.

Development of staff is often one of the first things to be shelved when work gets busy. If millennials want to go in search of an opportunity where they feel more fulfilled, then I say good luck to them.

Loyalty is a two-way street

The article mentions that Gen-Y have a distinctive lack of loyalty. I hate loyalty. Whenever somebody tells someone else that they aren’t loyal, or that they should be more loyal, you know what I hear? I hear “I’m doing something bad to you, but I expect you to put up with it for my benefit”.

Loyalty is a tool that leaders and companies use to force employees to feel bad about disagreeing with a course of action. Loyalty is what forces people to do bad things against their will. Loyalty is what makes people stay at bad jobs and in toxic environments where they are being harmed.

Loyalty also has a clear beneficiary — think about it. If somebody is loyal to you, then you are the winner. If a person is loyal to an organisation, then the leaders of that organisation win, because it is likely the person will put up with a lot of rubbish before they decide it is not worth their time.

If I want somebody to be loyal to me, it needs to be reciprocated. Many loyalty-based relationships seem to be extremely one-sided, in favour of the high-power individual. Loyalty is a concept that stops progress and keeps people silent.

If millennials have no loyalty, it’s because they don’t feel like they are receiving anything back. Perhaps they expect too much, but don’t expect them to put up with your crap for nothing. If millennials are selfish, then leaders who expect loyalty for nothing are too.

If everybody puts up with bad workplaces, then bad workplaces is what you’ll get

Frankly, there are already enough people staying silent in the face of bad corporate cultures and terrible leadership. It’s the people who don’t accept what they have been dished out that will help to change the cultures of organisations, because businesses that continue with toxic cultures will eventually (hopefully) die.

The attitude of the (stereotypical) millennial is a litmus test for your organisation. Retaining millennials may mean you need to work harder. But leaders are meant to work harder — that’s why they get paid more and have more decision-making authority.

It’s not about pandering, it’s about using their feedback as information

It’s not about pandering to the millennials. Sure, some of them may simply be asking for too much, too soon. But let’s not pretend that Tom from Accounting has it right. Just because he sits in the same role for 40 years and is part of the furniture, doesn’t mean that this is the right approach for everybody.

Maybe Tom is doing a crappy job. Maybe he’s as productive as a dead badger but people keep him around because it’s easy to lead somebody who doesn’t ask for anything and does whatever you want.

Millennials feel like they want to change the world, and to do that, they need to feel as if they are learning new skills that will help them to do so.

You don’t need to pander and turn your organisation upside down for millennials, but it is worth having a think about what your team or organisation offers. Many leaders are complacent and they have a “like it or leave it” attitude. Well, many millennials are probably going to leave it, thank you.

And that’s OK. They’ll try to find a leader who can develop them. They might be looking for a while, but that’s their issue and they’ll settle where they feel comfortable. And while they are engaged, they might just crap all over Tom’s 40 year stale work ethic.

Author’s note: I’m on the cusp of Gen-X and Gen-Y, being born in 1980. Different sources will list me as part of both generations at various times, and I feel like I have some of the qualities of both groups. I’ve done my share of job-hopping after a few unfulfilling work experiences, but I also know that you don’t get anywhere by jumping without any persistence. It is all a balancing act, trying to be fulfilled whilst also contributing positively to your workplace, colleagues and the teams you lead.

Good luck out there millennials! And to you too, Tom from Accounting. Sorry I stereotyped you.

Originally published at on May 14, 2016.

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