I’m a 21-year-old writer, English major, and soon-to-be jobless graduate living in my parents’ basement. As my brother often reminds me, I’m a living stereotype of the millennial generation, a group generally categorized as people born from 1980 to 2000.
In 2013, Time used “cold, hard data” to show that we are lazy, developmentally stunted, and convinced of our own greatness. These views have since become commonplace and are echoed by hundreds of voices.
The idea of millennial entitlement is rooted largely in a perceived new period between adolescence and adulthood. Whereas people in their twenties once had stable work and were living independently, many graduates today still live at home.
This phenomenon has led to several assumptions, like the idea that millennials are too lazy to work, are stunted in their ability to grow up, and lack the initiative to seek high-level employment and move out, preferring to instead mooch off their parents for as long as they can get away with it.
Millennials at work
Jane*, a 2016 graduate in Political Science and Latin American Studies, counters these assumptions by providing some insight into her job search experience as a recent graduate. After going through a stressful period of applications, she has found work as a University of Toronto employee — a position she feels fortunate to have, but still feels unconfident about holding.
Due to her apprehension regarding her hiring, The Varsity agreed to grant her anonymity for this article.
“I worked really hard on my job search during my last four months of school, and applied to over 100 jobs,” she said. “Some I knew I wasn’t really suited for, but I just kept applying and hoped that something would work out. I did get a job that started literally the Monday after I submitted my final essays, and then got another job about four months later through a position I held as a student.”
Her experience is not unique. One girl in my fourth-year seminar declared just last week that she had applied to over 85 jobs. Though Jane lives independently, her peers staying at home aren’t necessarily taking it easier. Daniel Neiman, a 2016 Neuroscience graduate, was promoted to Assistant Manager at DAVIDsTEA shortly after graduating.
“I thought – perfect! I can earn a lot of money, work full-time and still have time to figure out what I want to do!” he said. “That is definitely not what happened… I usually worked eight hours a day and had to commute an hour and a half to my store each way. I felt like I had no time to enjoy simple hobbies because every time I came home, I would be exhausted from the day and [dread] that I had to go to sleep in an hour only to wake up at 7:00 am again the next day.”
Rhianna Jackson-Kelso, a 2016 graduate in English, described a similar routine. “I’ve been working three jobs at 60 hours a week,” she said. “I think it’s been about a month and a half since I last had a day off work. None of these jobs are ones I would like to keep doing long-term, but I find I’m always too tired to do any real job hunting during my off time, and I’m starting my master’s this coming September so I feel like there isn’t a point anyway.”
She elaborated, saying, “Having zero free time and still facing economic problems, seemingly no matter how much I work, has been incredibly stressful. Seeing so many angry think-pieces written by out-of-touch Baby Boomers who think my entire generation is lazy, as well as having to serve coffee to such people daily, is so frustrating and degrading.
“So many of my friends are in the same position as me, where they need to work multiple jobs to get by, or even switch to part-time student status because the stress of working and doing full-time school is too much,” she said.
The times have changed
A common theme of generational disputes is the assertion that times have changed. For example, Jane pointed out that home ownership in the city is so out of reach that it is no longer a realistic goal for many people. Priorities have shifted.
“It’s hard out there,” said Jane. “Most of my friends are working very hard and taking their careers very seriously, but we are also grappling with a changing workforce and the notion that we will mostly work for several employers in different roles through our careers.”
CBC television journalist Gillian Findlay offered some insight into what her undergraduate experience in the seventies looked like in comparison, as an example of how much has changed over the past 40 years.
She described working a unionized job at a plywood company full-time throughout the summers, an opportunity she admitted that she was fortunate to come by. “It wasn’t a fun job,” she said, “The hours were terrible… but I was making almost twenty dollars an hour.”
As a result, working part-time during the school year was never a necessity. Although she did work waitressing and tutoring jobs on the side, they were supplementary and did not take up more than a few hours a week.
“I could in the course of four months over the summer make enough money to support myself through eight months of school,” she said. “I don’t know if there are any kids now who can work four months a year and make enough money in that time to support themselves, certainly not to live in a city like Toronto.”
The uncertainty of reward
Indeed, the students I talked to reported working multiple jobs to support themselves throughout the year. The rising costs of tuition and living have also prompted significant mental health challenges for the younger generation, who seem to be balancing more work with less certainty of reward.
“This has probably been the most difficult year I’ve had to deal with yet,” said Neiman. “I wasn’t feeling like myself, and if I did see my friends on the rare occasion, I felt tired and disconnected from them. It almost felt like others were moving forward with their lives and I was just stuck.”
Neiman is not alone in feeling this way, and even Jane, whose University of Toronto job is full-time, expressed that her job does not feel final.
“I love my job now and it’s in the field I want to work in,” she said. “Even though I am very secure, I feel like I have to keep doing more. I’m taking courses at night and plan to go back to school for a master’s part-time in the fall of 2018. I don’t know when I’ll feel fully settled, and I have a hard time allowing myself to relax and take time off.”
According to Findlay, these concerns are not necessarily unwarranted. “In my generation, you understood that the reward was going to be there,” she said. “As long as you were prepared to work hard, you could assume that one way or the other, the opportunities would present themselves, and you would get a chance,” she said, “I don’t think that you can assume in the same way I did that those opportunities are going to be there for you.”
Madison Laithwaite, a 2016 Sociology and Criminology graduate, also points out that the older generation’s model of living may be outdated. “You went to high school, got a job, found a husband or wife, bought a house and had children. That isn’t the case anymore,” Laithwaite said.
“Today there is more opportunity for schooling and pursuing a career we enjoy rather than settling on what pays the bills. We aren’t as pressured to have kids young. Life has become more about exploration, freedom, and ‘living life to the fullest,’” she added.
While this new model is sometimes viewed as indulgent and supportive of delaying responsibility, Findlay said, “I think [millennials] figured out more stuff than perhaps my generation did. They understand that all satisfaction doesn’t come from a job, and it’s a big world out there, and there’s lots of opportunities in a broader sense.”
She indicated the strong qualities that she sees from this increased schooling and exploration. “I’m quite blown away by the young people that are coming in,” she said. “They’re better educated than I ever was. They’re smart. They know the world. They’ve travelled usually. They speak many languages. These are really accomplished young people that I see.”
“I’m going home now”
One reason that Findlay feels the ‘entitled’ label has stuck is because millennials, perhaps more than any past generation, have a strong sense of worth and are willing to set boundaries. “They don’t want to be exploited,” she said. “And I think we have not done a terribly good job of not exploiting them.”
She pointed out the abundance of unpaid internships, even at the CBC. “Sometimes, people stand up and say ‘I’m not going to do that’ or ‘I’m going home now. It’s seven o’clock and I already put in two hours of overtime that you’re not paying me for,’” she said. “I think that maybe has been shocking to some people in management, so that may contribute to this notion.”
She also gave a less popular take on her own generation. “I think that we were probably the most privileged generation to come out of school,” she said. “We were the tail end of the baby-boomers. We came out at a time of growing economic prosperity where businesses were expanding and there were opportunities.”
As many students and recent graduates discovered, this abundance of opportunity is no longer the norm. “Millennials are faced with worse pay rates and higher costs of living than our parents ever were,” said Jackson-Kelso.
“Post-secondary education has become mandatory if you want access to jobs that pay a living wage, and tuition fees are much higher now than they were in our parents’ and grandparents’ day,” she said. “Anyone who claims all millennials are lazy and entitled is seriously out of touch with our current economic situation.”
Which stereotypes, if any, hold water?
A few students did admit that there might be some truth to the stereotypes, largely as a result of how our generation was raised. “There is definitely a certain amount of false helplessness and a sense of entitlement among some millennials,” said Laithwaite. “Helicopter parenting or ‘babying’ has been a concern in recent decades.”
Jane echoed the sentiment, saying, “Perhaps extreme focus on making sure everyone felt like a winner when we were young may have contributed to how people view themselves now.”
Findlay also pointed out that millennials receive mixed messages when they are raised to follow their dreams and then shamed for not being practical.
“I think if we’re going to tell kids to go out and pursue your dreams and study what interests you, we also have to understand that when they’ve done that, we’re going to have to help them figure out how to apply that,” she said, affirming that the focus should be on helping young people direct their skills rather than dissuading them from pursuing what they like.
The rise of social media has also contributed much to the reputation of what Time called the “Me Me Me Generation.” Even Laithwaite admits that there may be truth to the stereotype: “I think that our generation is more self-absorbed than those in the past,” she said.
Although everyone I talked to had mixed feelings about the impacts of social media — Neiman agreed that it was easy to get lost in our follower count and number of likes — few agreed that it had actually caused a rise in self-absorption. Jackson-Kelso attributed self-absorption simply to the age of millennials.
“Your 20s are a time when, ideally, in addition to hammering out the details of your professional life, you’re also having fun and finding out who you are as a person, and social media broadcasts and amplifies this process of discovery to judgemental older generations who apparently have forgotten what it was like to be our age,” she said.
Findlay agreed, saying, “You’re at that stage in your life where you’re defining yourself, making decisions about what to do and where to go. All of that requires you to be self-absorbed. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have the ability or the instinct or the desire to look at the world in different ways. But your job at that particular time is to figure yourself out.”
“It’s because they can’t”
Perhaps it is natural for every older generation to look down and scoff at the new one. The media today may have only amplified those sentiments.
As Findlay said, “Every generation has its challenges. If you came of age in the mid 1930s, how difficult that must’ve been. Or if you came of age and you were a boy in 1914, imagine what that was like… I don’t know if in a historical sense, we’re going to look back and say that you guys were uniquely challenged, but you have your challenges.”
In the end, the part of the stereotype that every interviewee rejected most was laziness. Our situations, everyone expressed — from living at home to working temporary jobs — are entirely to do with necessity rather than choice.
“I think there’s a really apparent instinct at that age to be independent, to want to be independent, to go out in the world and live your own life and prove to yourself and to others that you can,” said Findlay. “If people aren’t doing that, it’s because they can’t.”
*Name has been changed at individual’s request.