generationmeIt came up gently enough at a session at Affiliates Day, a half-day conference put on by the University of Washington’s Information School. We were sitting in a circle with Prof. Mike Eisenberg, talking about the “Google Generation,” when someone pointed out that young people these days tend to act a little, well, entitled.

I hear this a lot in discussions about Millennials, especially in the context of work. Young employees lack loyalty and ooze self-importance, goes the argument. They treat their bosses as equals, text their friends between meetings and complain when they have to use the company email client. It’s all me, me, me.

No one likes to hear a negative trait applied to their own generation. (I’m an old Millennial, born in 1982.) But I’m convinced that many of the behaviors people attribute to one generation’s sense of entitlement are just the natural result of something simple and universal: the personalization of technology.

And they’re really not so bad.

How quickly our devices have glommed themselves onto each of us is obvious enough. When I was in high school, each member of my family shared the computer without complaint. Today, if I even have to sign in more than once to anything on my phone (my phone, my rules!), I get — in that sharp, little way — pissed.

Then there’s communication. Most of us manage some profile online, some small pulpit, if not several. And despite the plethora of cautionary tales about social media posts gone wrong, we’re getting really good at it —knowing what photos to share, how to caption them, how to phrase our feelings and ideas. Our use of the Web all but revolves around our own self-representations.

That’s pretty much the definition of self-centered. But is it really a problem?

It’s no stretch to make the connection here. Personalization has become the expectation not just of the emerging generation, but of everyone whose lives in the technological present. Life just works better when the tools we use to navigate it reflect who we are and how we like to do things.

And the more personal these technologies get, the more they become the hubs of our whole lives — work, play, everything — the more critical that personalization becomes.

If you missed Paul Miller’s stellar essay in The Verge last week, check it out. The 26-year-old just spent a whole year without the Internet. He expected to rediscover the “real him” in a disconnected nirvana. There was no such thing.

“I fell out of sync with the flow of life,” he wrote.

Monica Guzman
Monica Guzman

Seen through this lens, the young employee who’s irritated because his workplace won’t let him download the apps he likes onto the computer they make him use is not acting entitled, but questioning inefficiency. Does he want to do things his way? Yeah. But it’s the way he’d be most productive. And it’s kind of the norm in the rest of his life.

And one other thing. Our personal devices are not just devices anymore. To borrow an idea from the cyborg anthropology, they’re a part of us. You may have good reason to tell an employee she can’t use her own machines for work. Security or productivity reasons, maybe. But be aware: you’re getting between her and, well, herself.

Is this individualistic? Oh yeah. But critics who attribute that to selfishness or a lack of empathy are missing the bigger picture. This isn’t about self-obsession, but self-empowerment. Personalized technology gives each of us superpowers, including the power to work together more effectively than ever before. But we have to calibrate those superpowers to fit who we are. That means knowing who we are, and caring about it — at home, at work, wherever.

Researchers like Jean Twinge, author of “Generation Me,” can go ahead and lament what they view as a sad sense of entitlement.

Me? I think it’s nothing more than people waking up to their own power and not being willing to compromise it.

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  • Joe

    Next you are going to say this post is not poor rationalization.

    The average 26 year does not know more about productivity than people more experienced, they just think they do. That is called entitlement.

  • G. Harper

    I’m in an odd position on this… on one hand, I’m also an “old millenial” from ’80. On the other, I’m one of the IT nerds whose job is to manage the company IT infrastructure.

    My job is an odd balancing act – on one hand, I want all my apps and programs to just work. Same as everyone else. It’s not that hard, I understand it probably better than most, and there’s no real practical reason it can’t.

    On the other hand… this week I just found out there’s unpatched vulnerabilities in the last N’th versions of Adobe Flash, Java, IE*, etc. Company Foo got hacked because of java. Company Bar got hacked because of Flash.

    My dilemma is; do I send out a generic warning email that everyone’s going to subsequently ignore? Do I block java & flash at the gateway? There’s no “win” there… option a) send an email, warn a few hundred people, and one person is going to ignore it, get infected and we’re the next headline of ‘Company X got hacked’. If I flat out block it at the firewall, then it just pisses off everyone who knows better, and just wants to see the latest kitten video.

    • Amal

      The only possible solution I see is a balanced approach to company gear and BYOD using protected sandbox repositories on user devices that the company can control and revoke… just haven’t seen anything like that yet.

      The thing this article is missing is the explanation of “being reasonable”… defend your title argument Monica! The bottom line is, every single article I’ve read “from the trenches” regarding productivity involves turning off all those social distractions and going head-down in to your workload. There is no way in hell an employee is being more productive when they are constantly threading in neurotic facebook newsfeed checks, twitter scans, and pinterest comas with daily work tasks… you just can’t stay focused on your work when you’re addicted to the feed… unless of course your job is so menial a monkey could do it with a banana in one hand.,, of if you are the chief social media marketer. For any other job title, I know if I was an employer paying you for 8ish hours of work a day, the only damn thing your brain should be focused on is what I’m paying you for, not what hot dog stand your friend just ate a spicy one at.

      • Monica Guzman

        You’re absolutely right re: productivity. I wasn’t writing so much about that, as about this perception of entitlement that seems to come from obstacles to productivity. What I say is “reasonable” is an attachment to devices and to a sense of identity that just makes sense in a world more and more driven by personal tech. No question that focus on tasks makes for better productivity. Our attachment to devices is part of what’s making these bad work habits so tough to break.

  • NA

    I agree. It is not a generational thing, it is just the way things have become in our culture, period. Every age group is sharing a chronology of their daily life online now. Every age group expects to connect with work and personal life interchangeably throughout the day. The problem I see is that we’ve lost a sense of being present, of patience, and of using manners. Glancing at the phone during a meal? Missing a left turn light and annoying everyone behind you because of something urgent on the phone? And the foggy look in the eyes so familiar these days as we glance up and down at our phones. The technology is amazing but it shouldn’t take us completely away from participating in real life.

    • Monica Guzman

      Yes — this is universal, not generational, and it is so tied to how technologies have brought us closer to our own sense of identity. These devices are not toys so much as extensions of ourselves. I think we have to begin to understand that.

      As for not being present in the physical, yeah, all kinds of issues stem from that. But there are benefits, too, from never having to leave the constructed personal world we take with us on our smartphones.

      Fascinating times …

  • Jeff Erwin

    I don’t think it is so much that this latest generation isn’t allowed to do anything they want whenever they want, although that IS an issue, it’s that they seem in distain (generally speaking) of wisdom and experience and have an aura of ‘I know more than you, so let me do my thing’. The issue with this is that they don’t know more than someone with more experience and wisdom, they have a very hard time accepting that this might be true and they exude an attitude as a result that reeks of entitlement, perhaps because we don’t yet have a better word.

    I’ve been running startups for 30 years, making me a geezer, at least relative to the current generation. What we experience in this 20-30 year-old crowd is unlike anything I have ever seen. Again, all generalizations as we don’t see it in all of them, but there is nothing more infuriating than to have your request to ‘put the phones and ipads away for the meeting and focus on the topic’ with the ubiquitous rolling of the eyes made famous in ‘valley girl’ days.

  • Ryan Dancey

    I don’t think you’re a millennial in the sense that term is being applied in terms of entitlement. You’re in Generation X. You lived through a boom-bust-boom-bust cycle and have seen that things can change on a dime and you know that there’s no such thing as a guarantee to happiness.

    The kids born after 1990 have only lived in a boom-bust cycle. They feel like all the safety and security they were promised as children was robbed from them in the Great Recession. They were teenagers when we went into the Long War and they’ve been raised on a diet of propaganda about how “unfair” the world is with rich people soaking up all the resources and poor people being kept down by the system.

    Those kids look to technology as a way out of that trap. They see their always-on, always-connected lives as a replacement for the kind of life their parents had. They get value from social connections the way their parents got value from material things or from status symbols like job titles, cars or real estate.

    You watched that happen and were a part of the wave of technology adoption that made it possible, but you’re never going to view the world the way the millennials do. The sense of “entitlement” they have is different than your sense. You want stuff to work because its convenient and productive. They want stuff to work because that’s the bank where they keep their wealth. It’s a whole different perspective on the matter.

  • Dylan Wilbanks

    Millenials are “entitled” and considered self-centered. Generation X (my generation) was branded as “slackers” and called… entitled and self-centered. The Boomers became the “Me Generation” and were derided for their lack of willingness to respect authority… they were entitled, you see. And further back, the Silent generation wedged between the so-called Greatest and the Boomers were upbraided in popular literature as delinquents — I bet you could dig into the lit and find the word “entitled” somewhere.

    I hate this generation v. generation discussion. The reality is far simpler — we promise the younger generations opportunity if they work for it, but we never explain the amount of work we’re really talking about, delude them into working 60-80-100 hour weeks, and then do what we can to keep them from threatening our entrenched positions at the top. It’s advantage-taking. And it’s not collaborative, it’s adversarial.

    We need to get post-generational. The best web dev in our org is 23. The second best is 45. And they work tightly together, with little “oh you’re an old man/entitled brat.”

  • Bang


  • JoeDikk

    Your ability to think cleverly and without immense cognitive dissonance is a little sad. You might also try refuting facts with other facts, rather than just your own thoughts. We Millenials, like it out not, HAVE scored higher than ANY previous generation on the narcissism scale. (Un-fun fact…yes, the scale is real and, yes, quite literal surveys were taken by hordes of us…in fact, it is EASIER to do such surveys on us because we, not surprisingly add you total admit, just aspire talking about every nitnoid and mundane detail of our lives to anyone who will listen…which is not typically each other). Please, you are not all born to be writers. Most of you should stop writing and start putting out bus IN THE STREETS to protest for change. Only this time, let’s not quit to have “it all” like the hypocritical hours of old did, and actually STAY rebellious until things change FOR EVEYBIDY, not just our own previous generation. Only then will we ACTUALLY go down in history as having done more than whine between instagrams and lattes

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