Generation Y: Accountability vs. Entitlement

Generation Y, also known as the “millennials”, encompasses the second most youthful group of living people today, second only to Generation Z, or the Boomlets.  This diverse bunch of humans entered this world, by definition, between 1981 and 2000 and includes yours truly.  We are the first generation raised with cell phones, the internet, smartphones, Blu Ray, and Xbox being present in near every household.  We were raised with a world’s worth of knowledge at our fingertips and with the urging that it was no longer easy to make a good living without a college degree.  Gone were the days of hard manual labor.  Shop class was replaced with keyboarding, and it produced the first generation in human history that regardless of intelligence would be accustomed to most recent technology and would continue to stay accustomed.  We are not the generation that would struggle with the next video player or game console as our predecessors had.

Truly, our generation is very blessed.  We came on the scene at a truly unique point in human history.  Modern technology presents us with an opportunity to integrate like never before.  A friend in China is a click away, and all of the world’s knowledge can be accessed with a single device the size of a Hershey’s bar.  As Bob Dylan would say, “the times they are a changin'”.  Generation Y has seen gas below a dollar, and above five. Most of all though, we have seen a change in culture.  A quick Google search on the different living generations presents a great characteristic of Generation Y that I feel nearly overshadows all else that I’ve presented thus far.  From marketingteacher.com:

“They have been told over and over again that they are special, and they expect the world to treat them that way.  They do not live to work.  They prefer a more relaxed work environment with a lot of hand holding and accolades.”

Ouch.  I would like to say that this isn’t true, but recent events have shown otherwise. Most of us have heard the “participation trophy” argument, and it truly poses a good question.  Should we award effort, or should we reserve accolades for excellence?  Well, that depends on who you ask.  For now, we will take that conversation and stash it for a rainy day.  The point to make here is that the culture of our society has shifted so that something like this would be the norm, and the adults that have been brought up in this current societal landscape have come to expect that to continue into their mature adult lives.  Keep in mind that the things which children are subjected to are at the control of their parents, generally speaking.  This holds true for nearly everyone and nearly everything.  Diet, schooling, athletics, religion, morals, and politics are generally passed from parental units to children.  I neglect the use of mother and father in this sense because family structure has generally evolved to include various other people, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and non-blood family.  Point being, children learn from parents, and the parents of Generation Y fall into two groups:  Baby Boomers, or Generation X (for the late arrivals of Generation Y).  Generally, these two groups were shifting from the much more conservative views that dominated in the early 20th century and began expanding their horizons, trying more things, becoming more accepting and global minded.  This is a stark contrast with the generations before, who were nurtured through a trial of fire with the World Wars and the Great Depression and taught to be tough, behave like gentlemen and ladies, be respectful, [insert cliche here]. It should really not be surprising that the offspring of a generation born in a time of great cultural upheaval in the late 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s would emphasize a much more lenient policy on the upbringing of children.  But why is that a problem?

Consider that you are training an animal.  Specifically, let’s say a dog.  Generally, when we train a dog to perform a task, like sitting or not defecating on the living room rug that grandma gave us, we use a combination of positive reinforcement and positive punishment.  “Positive” here means the addition of a stimuli.  You can positively reinforce an action by introducing a pleasant stimuli (e.g. a treat) and positively punish an action like chewing up the leg of the sofa by introducing a negative stimuli (e.g. your hand onto their head).  Eventually, the dog learns to expect certain consequences with certain actions, whether good or bad.  Now, the dog has learned to behave a certain way to either earn something or to not be punished.  Surprisingly enough, this is the same system that parents use to raise children (of course it’s more complicated).  For instance, if a small child gets near a hot plate or something dangerous, the parent will spank (er, I mean sternly talk to) the child and eventually, the child will learn that this action is bad and cease to do it.

Now, let’s consider another scenario.  Consider a child competing in a competition.  This theoretical competition has a set of rules and set teams and a winner will be determined based on who bests who.  However, we will throw a small wrench in the works.  Instead of a “winner” and a “loser”, we will have a “winner” and a “not winner, but not a loser either”.  Cool.  Sounds good.  So, let’s create a theoretical player in this scenario.  Call him Jimmy.  Jimmy is on the “not winner, but still not a loser” team.  Now, we aren’t going to assign an age to Jimmy because it’s irrelevant.  However, let’s assume that Jimmy is at least of the age that he can understand the rules of the game and that his team has lost sort of.  Following the game, we have Jimmy and Jimmy’s parents riding home from the game in their Dodge Caravan.  Now, after this, Jimmy seems upset.  His team has lost, and he understands this.  What he doesn’t understand is that everyone experiences failure or defeat at some point in their lives.  It’s natural.  So, Jimmy’s parents comfort him by saying, “Oh Jimmy, it’s not your fault.  It’s [insert reason for losing here].  You’re still a winner.”  And now, Jimmy is happy.  Throughout his childhood and into adolescence, Jimmy competes in various things, winning and losing along the way, accumulating both excellence trophies and participation trophies.

We’ll take a short break from our story to highlight a specific facet of our theoretical scenario.  Jimmy has experienced positive reinforcement in the form of either consolation (“You’re still a winner, it’s not your fault”) or award (a trophy) for failing.  A core nature of competition is the fact that there MUST be a winner and there MUST be a loser.

Continuing, Jimmy is now eighteen, and has completed high school.  He didn’t really do very well, honestly.  He was a C student, was decent in sports, but didn’t excel on his ACT and generally didn’t value academics.  He was a slacker, but despite this, he applies to several different colleges, getting rejected from each one.

“WHAT?!?  HOW COULD THIS BE?”, he exclaims.  “I DID ALL OF THE WORK!  I DESERVE TO GO TO COLLEGE!  THE SYSTEM IS UNFAIR!”

Our theoretical protagonist represents a perfect archetype of the Generation Y mindset. We are special, and expect to be treated as such.  We expect accolades.  This situation poses a two pronged problem.  First, in Jimmy’s mind, he didn’t do anything wrong.  He is deferring responsibility for this failure to an external source.  He didn’t get into college because the system was rigged, or because of the teachers, or the schools, but it was certainly not due to his performance.  This attitude represents Generation Y’s terrific ability to absolve themselves of accountability in regards to their decisions/actions.  Our hero here has been conditioned to believe that he is incapable of fault.  Whatever it is, it isn’t his fault.  This is just not the way the world works.  Humans make errors.  They say hindsight is 20/20, and I can think back now and list hundreds of things I should have done differently.  Better decisions, better actions.  But alas, the past is the past.  However, the ability to be retrospective and correct our flaws is of paramount importance in regards to becoming a successful member of society.  We must evolve our behavior and our actions based on mistakes and mishaps, learning as we go, and this is impossible when we cannot even consider it possible that we do wrong.

When I was a teenager, my mother and father, though divorced, often sang in chorus with regards to my future.  They both told me that if I wanted to go to college, I would have to earn it.  It was my responsibility to do well in school, and if I didn’t, I would not be able to go to college because they certainly would not be able to pay for it for me.  And so, I worked, studied, finished my classes, earned my way into a university, but never did it enter my mind that I simply deserved to be there.  Society, as I’ve found, owes me nothing.  I have been blessed to find myself presented with opportunities, but alas, nobody can force me to make the most of them.  I have seen chances come and go, and only during times afterward do I realize the consequences of letting them slip by, but to blame someone else for my failure to capitalize seems, to me, ludicrous.

Accompanying this lack of accountability is a sense of entitlement.  As I’ve stated before, society generally owes us nothing.  We are responsible for our own destiny, at least to some degree.  Of course there are extenuating circumstances.  Not everyone is blessed with equal opportunities, and that is why we need programs to address this, but even with these programs, a failure to capitalize on an opportunity lies solely at the hands of the person to which it is presented.  It’s a difference of earning vs. deserving.  Do I earn grades or do I deserve them?  Do I earn admittance or do I deserve it?  Oftentimes, the answer can be both.  Generally speaking, if you work to earn something, you do, in fact, deserve it also.  However, the reverse is not the case, and the value of hard work has diminished greatly in favor of a culture that prioritizes equality over rewarding merit. The problem is that some people work harder.  Some are more prepared.  Some are more athletic.  Some studied harder.  Some spent more time in class.  In that regard, we are not equal.  Failing to recognize this takes away from the great motivator of improvement. If we do not recognize our shortcomings, we cannot see the need to improve.  I am proud to be a member of Generation Y, and am thankful that I was born and raised in the time I was.  It is truly an exciting time to be alive.  However, I worry about my generation.  I worry when I see society shifting as it has.  I worry when I see the value of hard work overtaken by the value of participation.  I worry when I see other millennials favoring riots and protests over civil discussion and hard work.


Disclaimer section:  I am not a proponent of embarrassing children when they lose a competition.  However, I am a fan of compassionate criticism, and I feel that it does more good than the temporary confidence boost obtained from false excellence. 

I understand just as well as any that there are some members of society that are far less privileged than others.  I, unlike many of my conservative brethren, do not believe that it is always possible to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”, and I feel that there needs to be assistance available to those who truly need it.  I have been very fortunate in this life to have had the opportunities I’ve been blessed with, despite my circumstances during childhood.  I also understand that not everyone is as fortunate as I have been.  We need to help those of us that are less fortunate, but there is a significant difference between helping someone achieve something and giving it freely.

I do not intend this to apply to any one issue.  I generally consider myself a right leaning moderate politically, and I understand that polarization is the norm in our current political landscape.  I do not intend that this post fit one specific issue.  Rather, this post serves as an introspective look from a millennial that has experienced times in my life where I have felt entitled, only to be humbled, and from a millennial that has also interacted with others who have felt that way and may continue to do so.

Lastly, everything should be taken with respect.  Having differing opinions is no reason to be rude or disrespectful.

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