Millennials: Entitled or Risk Takers?

When I talk about generational differences, I try to distinguish between the real stuff and the "hype." The hype is always judgmental, typically focuses on the negative, and usually blames a particular generation for being the source of a problem in the workplace. As an example, Millennials are often depicted as being overly "entitled." I hear things like:

  • They just show up in the workplace and expect instant promotions and accolades
  • They expect everything to be handed them on a silver platter
  • They want us to cut their meat for them
  • They want an award just for coming to work every day
  • Everybody gets a trophy nowadays, and these new employees are spoiled

If we can push past this judgmental hype, we will discover a real issue. Millennials, I argue, were raised in a very child-focused environment–much more so than the generations before them. They were driven to play-dates, spent much more time in structured activities in "after-care" and in general were simply not permitted to roam the neighborhood as children like their Generation X and Boomer colleagues. Parents and other adults interacted with them much more directly when they were kids. Grownups today spend more time in the kids' world, than in previous generations. And yes, we do tend to give EVERYONE on the team a trophy and heavily emphasize positive feedback.

Does this child-focused upbringing make Millennials entitled? I don't think so. At one level, it simply conditioned them to expect more interaction from people at "higher" levels. That's what they had all their lives, why would they expect something different when they get to the workplace? It's not "entitled," it just is. 

And maybe there is an upside of entitlement? At a training program I delivered this week, one participant more or less made the point in the first bullet above: that Millennials expect a reward for just showing up. Another participant, however suggested another view. He said that it can be a good thing that they expect to be rewarded for just showing up. If that's true, this participant argued, then they will likely be more comfortable in taking risks, trying new things, or innovating.

Think about it. Those of us (Boomers and Xers) who "know" that we need to stand out and perform in order to get rewarded are much more likely to be afraid of failing. Trying something new or risky may get avoided because if we stand out negatively, we DEFINITELY won't get a reward. We end up focused on the results we know our boss will like, which probably leads us down the path of producing the results that our organization is already getting, because those came from the programs that our bosses created.

Millennials, on the other hand, are less worried about recognition (they know they'll get it), so they have the freedom to try new things or take risks. It's an interesting perspective. I have not yet come across any research linking Millennials to increased risk taking (anyone have a citation for me?), but I think it's definitely possible. And it's a great example of the tremendous potential of an open-minded workplace when it comes to generations. As long as we see those "other" generations as problems, we will probably not even notice when they do good things–even better than we are doing. But when we are open to that possibility, the conversation shifts. 


  1. 18.11.2010 at 3:58 pm

    Interesting post, Jamie. From a Millennial perspective, I’ve seen that many of my friends are extremely willing to go out on a limb – move to a new city without a full-time job, start their own business or rely solely on freelance work. (I’m guilty of the first example.)
    Like you, I haven’t come across any studies that specifically say members of my generation are more inclined to take risks than others, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised. We also wait loner to get married and have families, which can often lead to things like spontaneous overseas travel, quitting jobs that don’t totally fulfill us and other “riskier” behavior.
    Just some thoughts…

  2. 18.11.2010 at 4:31 pm

    I don’t know if it’s the reward for showing up that makes us (I use that term loosely as I’m a cusper who acts more like an Xer) less afraid. Could be more of an environment where Millennials have been told we can do whatever we put our minds to — a freedom to think creatively — that makes us more inclined to take risk.