After pouring over Gen Y articles across a variety of mainstream media websites, I found one popular generational cliché: soccer participation awards are credited for the sense of entitlement and over-confidence within our generation.
On behalf of Gen Y, I would like to say that we have always understood that stacks of participation certificates are meaningless.
The truth of the perceived entitlement is much deeper and more complex than a red ribbon presented at field day.
I believe the issue of privilege is rooted in the good intentions of our baby boomer parents and our faithful execution of the things we were told to do. From a very young age, we were told that we were smart and capable of doing anything we wanted. We can make a difference!, we were told. On the surface, this pep talk was empowering, yet the subtle (or sometimes obvious) assumption was that our talents and natural gifts would allow us to achieve our heart’s desire. Along with this “follow your heart” compass, we were given a traditional roadmap to “be the best” by relying on our talents and smarts.
Though participation awards did flow freely, the real attention and approval we craved came from our natural abilities and quantifiable successes. Standardized test scores ranked us against our peers, expectations to be “well rounded” pushed us into dozens of after-school activities on top of honors classes, and through most of it, our natural intelligence and aptitude took us quite far.
We heard the message “work hard,” but hard work alone wasn’t what got us awards and accolades. At the end of the day, our output was measured more than our input. This allowed many, but not all, of us to apply ourselves as little as possible to get the greatest outcome as possible.
This doesn’t mean we are a lazy or entitled generation. It means that this reward-style, taught to us by generations before us, shaped behavioral patterns that sought out the easiest course of action for the most reward. “Work smarter, not harder,” might be a more apt description of our generation than anything else.
Because of our high-performance childhood, expectations increased year after year. Top college admissions criteria seemed to shift from excellence to perfection.
When natural intelligence was not enough to ensure success, pressure mounted. Test anxiety sent some, including myself, to the counseling office. Terrified to fail, others in our generation sought short cuts to bolster their natural abilities. Adderall became a common last-minute test preparation solution.
After following all of the prescribed “steps to success” throughout our education, we entered the workforce expecting to claim the fruits of our labors; not because we felt we deserved it, but because we were told that we did.
However, post-college we faced the most bleak economic landscape in recent history – often with crippling student loan debt. Trained to be high-value workers who made a difference and received lucrative salaries (in order to pay off that student loan debt), we faced layoffs, downsizing, and dead ends. Many of us were unable to find jobs. Those of us who did enter the workforce often discovered that the corporate world didn’t provide the meaning or work-life balance we sought. Career security was scarce.
Throughout our lives we followed the prescribed roadmap to success, only to face an economic climate where it no longer applied.
Thankfully, all is not lost. In order to now fulfill our lofty and optimistic vision of work and life, we must learn to develop a new set of skills. We need to take more risks, learn to fail, and persevere no matter what life throws at us. We must realize that our talents alone will not lead to enduring success in today’s shifting workforce. With humble hearts we must re-commit to our original aim. But this time we must be willing to do whatever it takes – as long as it takes.
“Work smarter, not harder” can no longer be a guise for doing a little – or a lot – of work and getting frustrated with the results. We cannot expect that things will continue to flow easily to us just because we are talented.
The good news is that there are many of us out there already taking risks, failing, and persevering. There are people doing whatever it takes, as long as it takes. There are Millennials starting their own ventures, or shifting corporate cultures to include our values. We can learn from these peers and apply these concepts in our own lives.
We must recognize the span of our careers will unfold for decades to come. Just because we were told that success would come from following the rules doesn’t mean we should still play by them. If we can apply our knowledge and gifts with consistent effort and humble endurance, we will see the promises we were sold come to pass.
We must be willing to try, fail, and begin again.