The Entitled Millennial

I took part in a focus group recently that involved lots of grousing by business owners. In New England, where complaining is a beloved pastime, I have become very familiar with what to expect in this kind of setting. I knew it would only be a matter of time before I heard one particular entry:

I can’t get my young employees to work hard. They are so entitled. They need a break every hour, they show up late, and they expect me to coddle them.

As one of two millennials in a roomful of Boomers, I resisted my initial impulse to defend my species. I’ve learned in workforce and education settings (where these sentiments come up all the time) that “clapping back”, as the kids call it, is not likely to convince people.

Though I’m skeptical of any narrative boiling down to “the problem with kids these days”, I’ve given these viewpoints a lot of thought. After all, we have a constantly changing relationship with our technology and society – changes that could scarcely avoid affecting how people relate to work.

So what are some of the work stereotypes about “millennials” (generally, those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s)? The Economist ran a piece on the myths about young workers, summarizing some of the commonly held beliefs:

Everything from their education in kindergartens to their participation in social media has turned them into team players. But at the same time they reject careerism and are allergic to being managed.

As you can see, generalities about young workers usually contain some mixture of positive and negative. A recurring theme is that they are not bound by the typical career path, with the implication that they are less willing than past generations to pay their dues. Variations include needing constant validation or “trophies for everything”, expecting more socially conscious behavior from their employer, and being overly or underly attentive to time spent on the job.

As the article points out, grousing about the work habits of young employees is a perennial fascination, often with slight relation to facts. In fact, by some measures, young people are even more career focused, competitive, and less socially conscious than older workers.

The Economist concludes:

[Workers] want roughly the same things regardless of when they were born: to be given interesting work to do, to be rewarded on the basis of their contributions and to be given the chance to work hard and get ahead.

As it turns out, differences within generations are as large as those between. I find this resonates most with my experience. Some of my friends are focused on getting through the day and feel no connection to their work, others are highly dedicated, even to extraordinarily meaningless tasks. Just like some people tend towards being conflict averse or risk-seeking, how people relate to work has to with individual personalities and desires much more than whether you were born in the 90s.

Regardless of the trends, the perception of a problem with younger workers is very prevalent. Generally, employers are not very good at overcoming these issues. The two most common strategies seem to be complaining or investing in cringeworthy millennial-attracting ploys (“no, there’s no benefits or job security, but we do have an ice cream machine and bean bag chairs!”). This list of “pampering perks” is taken from an article on how to attract young workers, with ideas ranging from the sensible to the idiotic.

Millennial Attraction
Training stipend? Great idea for caring and investing in your employees. The Cadillac loan program strikes me as…misguided.

Only now is the workforce development system dipping its toes into creating programs for how to manage younger workers comprehensively. As far as generational differences do exist, it is certainly employers’ duty to bridge the gap as well, rather than putting all expectations on young workers to meet their standards. I don’t think we’ll get there with company massages and keg parties.

Bad Ideas about Brain Drain

Commonwealth Magazine is a fantastic news source for city news in Massachusetts. But when they wrote recently about the Northeast Regional Student Program, they couldn’t even get through the title of the article without relying on tired “brain drain” metaphors:

Tracking student migration

Massachusetts is a winner under the Regional Student Program, while New Hampshire is a loser

Graph taken from Commonwealth Magazine article “Tracking student migration,” Nov 15, 2014.

With the talk of winners and losers, you can be forgiven for thinking that the Regional Student Program is a fancy new name for a regional March Madness run-up tournament. What the program actually does is offer a lower rate to out-of-state students from Northeastern states to other regional state’s colleges. You can qualify if your program of study is not available in your state or, in a separate program, if you live a certain distance from the other state’s college.

Labeling a state whose students take advantage of this program as a “loser” is indicative of bizarre and parochial thinking about students. It’s especially bizarre in New England, where the small size and arbitrary borders of many states mean that people will necessarily be crossing state lines to live, work, and study.

In fact, from the perspective of New Hampshire, the shift in students may well be seen as a victory. Why does New Hampshire need to establish a program in Canadian Studies or Puppetry when in-state students can go to Vermont or Connecticut to study these important subjects?

The tallying of “wins and losses” continues in the proximity-based program:

Northern Essex Community College, with campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill, was the biggest winner overall, attracting 1,160 students from other states.

Northern Essex CC 1
NECC is closer to New Hampshire than downtown Haverhill, the city the college is located in.
Source: Google Maps.
Source: Google Maps with personal touch
NECC’s Lawrence campus. Again, dangerously close to enemy territory.
Source: Google Maps with my editorial comments.

This is ludicrous. NECC is literally walking distance from New Hampshire. Is New Hampshire really a “loser” when its students choose to attend the community college nearest to their home?

This is not to say the numbers are irrelevant, or that greater out of state attendance is always a good sign. There are places where “brain drain” is conceivably a problem. Northern Maine, for example, has been losing inhabitants for many years and has an older and poorer population as a result. This hinders further economic development, continuing the cycle of economic decline.

So let’s assume that “losing” students to neighboring states represents a problem to New Hampshire. The response is pretty clear. New Hampshire is leading the pack in increasing college costs at state universities; It currently costs less to be a regional student under this program to UMass’ flagship Amherst campus than to go to University of New Hampshire as an in-state student. Much has been made of the economic naivety of students, but they know a good deal when they see it. If New Hampshire really thinks this is a problem, it could lower its rates for in-state students.

The Brain Drain Refrain

I don’t want to jump on this article alone. The larger problem is that this type of thinking is a major (and misplaced) concern in New England. There’s an ingrained fear that young educated people are a finite resource leaving [insert geographical area] in droves. If it’s not New Hampshire’s young people leaving for – gasp – Massachusetts, it’s Bostonians leaving for Silicon Valley.

There are a couple problems with this thinking. First, economic development naturally happens across state lines. Massachusetts’ loss is usually not New Hampshire’s gain; conversely, however, the benefits of better education are often shared between states. A lot of southern New Hampshire is part of the Boston metro area – an implicit recognition that the ties between the cities and towns have a gravitational pull across state lines.

The alternative is ludicrous: in order for students to pursue their best economic interests within state lines, each state would have to develop their own Harvard, MIT, and mature biotechnology industry within a major urban area like Boston. And a mature finance and insurance industry like Connecticut. Or any number of other economic assets that are not spread evenly among the states. In this instance, the UMass system is highly respected and one would expect it to draw students over nearby borders.

Second, I feel compelled to remind people who worry about these issues that students return. Whether because of family, nostalgia, or sense of duty to your hometown, people return to where they come from. If it’s so risky to let someone from Plaistow, NH enter the wilds of Massachusetts, I feel like it’s going to be hard to “retain” them anyway. The churn between states could instead be viewed as a healthy way to build economic connections.

This Boston Redevelopment Authority report represents some better thinking on the issue. Every few years someone rings the alarm bell to say that Boston/Massachusetts/New England is failing to retain enough of its young minds. While having a critical mass of well-trained people is vital to regional economic success, the report deftly points out that the “number who stay” is a misguided metric.

The retention of college graduates is lower in New England than other parts of the country. This is mostly due to the fact that the region imports students every year, with far more students coming into the region than leaving it. This retention rate also reflects the highly prestigious and selective schools in the Boston area which, as shown by research, produce more mobile graduates.

In other words, Boston can afford to lose brains because it attracts so many good ones. Some of these young people are coming from New Hampshire, and some of them will return to their home state. Others will stay in Boston or elsewhere but start a business or make an important discovery that spurs economic growth at home.

Excessive focus on brain drain is a bit pathetic. The greatest tragedy, to this mindset, is a young person crossing a state border. It’s like those parents who drive away their children with their overweening desire to possess them. If you love something, let it go: in a lot of cases, it’ll come back better than ever.