Success Secrets | Generation Y: entitled or not?

Success Secrets | Generation Y: entitled or not?

As a baby boomer executive with 30 years of experience, I encounter many young people entering the business world today pretty sure they know it all. What is your opinion about Gen Y’s sense of entitlement?

—Chris Perkins, Vandalia, Ohio

We don’t get it. That is, we don’t get why everyone is so down on Gen Y.

We think the crop of 20-somethings breaking into the business world right now is about as energized and exciting a group of “kids" as we’ve ever seen. And we’ve seen them a lot over the past several years—visiting dozens of campuses, teaching in two different MBA programmes, consulting for companies that employ thousands of Gen Yers and hiring several on to our own team. Overwhelmingly, we’ve found Gen Yers to be hard-working, entrepreneurial, startlingly authentic, refreshingly candid and wonderfully upbeat.

Basically, not to get all mushy or anything, we love them. Don’t get us wrong. We don’t doubt that you’ve recently encountered any number of know-it-all young people. They’re certainly out there. But they always have been that way.

After all, ever since the beginning of, well, higher education, every crop of graduates has contained its share of swaggering big-heads convinced that the grown-ups can go home now. Of course, most of these types end up eating humble pie after a few years, having discovered that ruling the world is not as easy as they originally thought.

Surely, some portion of Gen Y is headed for such a dismal fate. But, we would say most of them—indeed, the majority—are headed for blue sky, in careers characterized by commitment and unbounded by convention.

Everywhere we go, we meet MBAs who have decided to spurn the corporate world to start their own businesses.

In the class taught by Jack at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, some 20% of the students have already launched a venture. Similarly, during a visit to Stanford Business School in 2005, we met a pair of students out of a central casting call for investment bankers. “So, what firm will you be joining in New York?" we asked them. We were surprised to hear they were launching a chain of upscale barbershops.

Of course, not every Gen Yer we’ve met is hankering to be an entrepreneur, but many still want to change the world with where and how they work, exuding an optimism more reminiscent of the 1950s than any other era in recent memory.

Now, maybe Gen Y’s reputation for entitlement derives from its apparent interest in making money—lots of it, right away. We’ve read plenty about such “greed". But, what we’ve seen is different. On virtually every campus visit, Gen Yers have asked us about corporate ethics and social responsibility. Many have shown a thoughtful concern about how to strike a meaningful balance between work and life. Some of them have challenged us about the whole notion of winning, asking, “Does success only have to be about money?" When we’ve said no—that success is about setting personal goals and achieving them—the response has been invariably positive.

Indeed, the same question came up just the other evening at dinner with a Gen Yer we know, who earns a modest salary as an assistant golf pro. “I wake up every morning thrilled about getting to work and helping people," he told us. “That’s what makes me feel successful." To our minds, his words were uplifting, but not particularly unusual from a person his age.

Which all begs the question we started with: Why does Gen Y get such a bad rap? We would suggest two answers.

The first is the age-old human propensity to worry about the wayward values of “kids these days". Your grandparents worried about your parents,who worried about you and some day, your kids will worry about theirs.

The second reason is something we call “trend inflation." With the explosion of media outlets in every form,all of them needing content, there has emerged a relentless parade of so-called trends and cultural phenomena based on little more than the vague phrase, “Experts say."

In recent weeks, for instance, we’ve seen stories about the “growing" trends of weddingson Thursdays, pets coming to work and people making “life lists" to keep track of thethings they want to do before they die. Surely, there is some truth in all these reports, but “some truth" does not necessarily constitute reality.

So, yes, there are some entitled-acting young people entering business today, and they can come across as annoying. But, in ourexperience, Gen Y is anything but. They’re real—driven, open-minded and thoughtful in a way that will be great for their careers and the entire economy to boot.

All they need to do is grow up.

Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning Campaign readers can email them questions at Please include your name, occupation and city.

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