'Millennials Are Morons' Stories Are Slight to Entire Generation

It May Be a PR Coup for a Women's Etiquette School, but This BusinessWeek Trend Piece Is Bad Journalism

By Published on .

David Teicher
David Teicher
A recent print issue of BusinessWeek wondered "Are Millennials the New Office Moron?" The question was raised on the cover of the magazine, employing what's known in the industry as "wood," a tactic familiar to my ilk as the print version of "link-bait." The article itself was a joke, retitled "Why Etiquette Schools Are Thriving: The fact is, today's young professionals need to be told how to dress and act."

Instead of diving deep into millennial workplace habits, reporting on new sociological research or otherwise investigating the question raised, the article read as a two-page advertisement for some woman's etiquette school, weakly supported by the tired stories of college students losing out on job opportunities due to inappropriate Facebook pictures. To anyone who's ever worked in PR, it's clear where this story was conceived. Somewhere out there is a very happy publicist.

If this story were the only one of its kind, I'd be laughing instead of fuming. But it's not. Hardly a day goes by that I don't see another article, blog post, or TV segment, harping on Gen Y, warning the world of all our ills. It's come to the point where I've received work e-mails from respected professionals blaming a failure to deliver materials on a subordinate's "typical Gen Y behavior," not knowing that, being 25, I might take offense to such a suggestion. I've heard members of other generations express discontent with new, entry-level employees, prior to having worked with them, already well aware of the problems we cause in the office. But how can I blame them for these preconceived attitudes when it's generally "the media" that is responsible for propagating what can at best be referred to as blatant generalizations, and at worst, rampant stereotypes no different than those imposed on any other population subculture?

Not many people would think twice before attributing a workplace failure to another's age, specifically, one's millennial status. But ascribe the same errant behavior to one's race, gender or religion, and you've got a serious lawsuit on your hands. Sure, with age comes experience, but frankly, if a person screws something up, it's much more accurate to label that individual mistake a lapse in judgment or a result of personal incompetency than it is to reduce the person to a product of age and assume that such behavior is representative of an entire generation.

Now, if you insist on referring to sociological studies and market research so you might derive additional insights, with which to broadly blanket my peers, let me remind you that these studies are themselves generalizations and are never meant to be applied on the individual level.

Moreover, there is an inherent fallacy within any such research, namely, the identified behaviors and attitudes come about primarily as a result of posed hypothetical scenarios and hearsay that don't reflect real-world operations. But if you absolutely must accept and perpetuate descriptors like "entitled" and "job hopping," at least consider that those are not inherently malicious characteristics.

Firstly, "entitled" is just a newfangled way of referring to the same concentrated ambition that once defined the "American Dream." As products of the self-esteem movement, many millennials were raised under the guise of "limitless potential" with their sights set by parents' and teachers' "You can do anything" mantra. Coupled with the infinite potential offered by the internet and successful entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg as role models, we'd be foolish not to utilize everything at our disposal to get ahead. I don't feel "entitled" to anything I haven't earned, but I certainly feel entitled to pursue success in life by any and every means necessary.

With specific regard to workplace habits, many look at the Gen Y predisposition for job-hopping and quickly ascribe the trend to an innate disloyalty, found in all millennials and indicative of how horrible we must be to work with. Well, let me propose an alternate scenario:

In my grandparents' generation, it was commonplace for people entering the work force to leave high school, find a job at a company, and spend their lives slowly working their way to middle management. In my parents' generation, it was college, and if you were lucky enough to afford it, graduate school. But the unidirectional mandate held fast. You picked a specialty and stuck with it. Nary does a neurosurgeon find him or herself returning to graduate school in pursuit of an alternative vocation.

But things are different now. Educationally, I'm not limited to what I learn in school (thank you, Mr. Internet). Due to the state of the economy, there are fewer job openings, and the already-overpriced graduate school is even further out of reach. Imagine, for a second, I opted to pursue a master's degree after college.

Two years later, i.e. now, I'd be heavily in debt with only academic experience under my belt. Instead, I've worked in public relations, advertising, and now, publishing, all with a focus on social media and emerging technologies. I've seen one nebulous industry from multiple overlapping perspectives, honing my craft and increasing my value in the workforce.

Most importantly, I have been able to learn so much while still earning a living and making a professional contribution to the industry. Call it what you will, but "job hopping" isn't a matter of loyalty, it's about students graduating into a terrible economy and making the best decisions based on the options available. Besides, if the past 15 years have taught us anything about companies, it's that loyalty is no longer rewarded. The longest-working employees are typically the first to get cut when the ax falls.

Some people will undoubtedly see this column as arrogant and evidence to support their beliefs about my generation -- and that's what I'd call confirmation bias. Please note, I didn't start this fight. I had no reason to attack BusinessWeek prior to that article -- but I do have good reason to defend myself and my generation against a pretty serious accusation.

It's the journalist's job to examine data and research and put it into the proper context for readers. (Then again, "trend pieces" usually have a tenuous relationship with actual fact). But when it comes to these millennial myths, the opposite has become the norm, and with it, adverse implications arise.

How many employers and hiring managers have been exposed to similar articles? Is it so far-fetched to imagine that a promising graduate's drive could be misconstrued as "entitlement" and lose out on a job as a result?

This type of journalism leads to inaccurate assessments of reality and consequent discrimination; it perpetuates falsehoods and blatantly promotes ageism.

But, hey, at least that woman's etiquette school is doing well, right?

David Teicher is the social media and event-content manager for Ad Age.
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