What happens when the most entitled generation ever hits a recession
It was only 18 months ago that the Wall Street Journal ran an article outlining the lavish demands of a new generation of workers, known collectively as Gen Y or Millennials or Net Gen. At the time, the thinking was that this group—ages 30 and under—had employers over a barrel. For one thing, there were relatively few of them, and employers, facing an imminent wave of boomer retirements, would be competing for the best of this young cohort. Also, since this is the Internet generation, they were believed to possess magical and mysterious tech skills that would prove invaluable in the workplace of the future.
Emboldened by these dual advantages, Millennials set their expectations high. Not only did they want fun, fulfilling work, with flexible hours, good salaries, and ample vacation, they wanted to be celebrated, too. Literally, feted. Savvy employers had taken to embracing measures like prize packages for a job well done, “public displays of appreciation,” and, in the case of one manufacturer in Texas, retaining a “celebration assistant” in charge of helium balloons and confetti. This was smart business, according to 30-year-old Jason Ryan Dorsey, a self-appointed Gen Y expert—who consults with companies like Kraft and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts about the peculiarities and preferences of his generation. “Marking milestones is major,” he told Forbes magazine. “No birthday should go uncelebrated, and the first day on the job should be unforgettable.” Which is great, except for one thing: what happens when the most entitled generation in history slams into the worst job market in 30 years?
At the turn of 2009, in the midst of massive layoffs and hiring freezes, not to mention cut-rate Christmas parties where punch just wasn’t in the budget, these demands seem cringe-worthy—even more so than they did before. If ever there was a sign that the era of the sellers’ employment market is over, it came last month when Google—the Santa Claus of corporate perk-giving—instituted a hiring freeze and, among other things, cancelled its New York office’s decidedly Millennial-friendly tradition of afternoon tea. Almost as soon as they began for this cohort, it would appear its halcyon days are over.
In November alone, 71,000 Canadians lost their jobs—27 per cent of the newly unemployed are people aged 24 and under—and economists predict this is only a bellwether of worse to come. Suddenly, many of those retiring boomers can’t afford to retire. Making matters worse, Millennials are saddled with more debt than any previous generation (an average of $5,631 per year in student debt alone, not to mention the load sitting on their credit cards, and what they’re doling out in car payments). This recession is not what they signed up for.
“They were absolutely told that ‘You’re part of a blessed generation and you are going to be in control of your own destiny,’ ” says Winnipeg native Steven Rothberg, owner of CollegeRecruiter.com, a company that recruits college graduates mostly in the U.S. “The spring 2008 grads have had to do some major adjusting. They graduated with the expectation that it was going to be a sellers’ market, that they were going to have multiple offers, step into an upper management role and have significant strategic impact on a Fortune 500 company, and that’s just not the reality.” Until last year, he said, university and college students in their senior year, even the mediocre ones, could expect job offers as early as Oct. 1 of their final year. Now, employers are waiting until the spring to make hiring decisions, waiting to see how the economy shakes out, and leaving more students graduating into uncertainty.
There will be schadenfreude from those who see Millennial entitlement as a moral failing. “I hear people say this a lot,” says Dorsey of his boomer executive clients. “They say, ‘Your generation just needs one good recession and then they’ll appreciate their jobs.’ ” But this is too simplistic an assessment of why “kids today” are the way they are. They’re not genetically lazy or spoiled, any more than children of the Depression are inherently thrifty. Whatever overblown expectations this generation has are the product of decades of conditioning, and not only by overzealous boomer parents. Well-intentioned attempts to make this generation feel good about itself have, in fact, left them poorly prepared to weather a tough economic storm.
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