At age 13 I got my first job working at our family ice cream store in Southern California. The business was managed by my grandfather, who learned leadership in the army. You could tell. His approach was very top-down. He told people what to do and expected them to do it.
Unfortunately, the approach that worked with soldiers didn’t resonate with teenage workers. They didn’t respond to commands and expectations the way people did in the military. That frustrated him deeply.
“I don’t understand these kids! They’re so lazy, so entitled. What’s this country coming to?”
Managers from my grandfather’s generation weren’t the first or last to complain about ‘kids these days.’ In 2013, Time magazine published a story called ‘The ME ME ME GENERATION,’ describing millennials as ‘lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.’ New York magazine ran a similar piece years earlier called ‘The Me Decade,’ referring to the 1970s. Even farther back one influencer wrote, ‘Young people are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances.
‘They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it.’ That was from Aristotle in Rhetoric in the 4th century BC! You can only imagine what Aristotle’s parents said about him. (‘What’s wrong with this kid? All he does is sit around and think!’) The fact is, the old have been hating on the young for millennia.
In 2019 social scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara published their study of older subjects and their perspective on younger generations. They observed that as we age, we tend to criticize the young for lacking in areas where we perceive ourselves to excel. We also have unreliable, idealized memories of ourselves which we compare to the youth of today.
My mom recently called me out for demonstrating that exact thought process. After complaining to her about my college-aged son’s flakiness, she began rattling off stories of my college years when I was equally clueless. It turns out I wasn’t the rock-solid kid I remembered to be. Perhaps I also wasn’t the reliable, hard-working employee I thought I was. Could my grandfather have been complaining about me?
I thought about him during the decade that I ran my own franchise businesses. In the beginning, my employees were my biggest source of stress. It was tempting to blame their entire generation for their incompetence. Apathy, tardiness, ghosting – it drove me crazy. I’d joined the ranks of frustrated employers lamenting the days when we, as Gen-Xers, had a lot more to offer (despite what our Boomer parents thought).
The turning point came when I replaced my frustration with curiosity. Instead of wondering, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ I asked, ‘What drives these people?’ I wanted to learn about them and from them. When someone was performing well, I paid closer attention to determine why. What were the conditions that brought out their best? Was it something innate to them or was it something we could replicate in other team members?
I developed the same inquisitiveness about my underperformers. I stopped blaming their soccer trophies, helicopter parents, and the effects of screens and social media, and just tried to understand what motivated them. I didn’t want to endorse or enable their behavior, but my desire to understand them made me less contemptuous of them. It also made it easier for me to experiment with different approaches to leading them.
Slowly, through a lot of trial and error, mistakes, and mis-hires, we saw improvements. We continually refined our approach to management, and we got noticeable results. Employees lasted longer. Sales increased, not just with more transactions, but with an increase in our average ticket size. Online reviews from customers improved. The atmosphere became more pleasant and fun. My employees went from my biggest headache to my biggest asset. But it had to start with my own self-reflection.
Since Time’s cover story in 2013, millennials have gone on to advance their careers, start families, and mature as effectively as every generation before them. Today they run corporations, perform surgeries, and even govern countries. They’ve become important contributors to society. As they increasingly become the primary leaders of the labor force, we can expect to hear them complain about the incompetence of Generation Z.
So, are younger employees today really as lazy and entitled as us older folks believe them to be? It’s the wrong question. What we should be asking instead is what we need to do on our end to earn their devotion and grow them into the team we want them to be. And if we’re not willing to do that, then perhaps it’s not our employees who are entitled.
Scott Greenberg is a business speaker, writer, and coach who helps leaders and teams perform at a higher level. His upcoming book entitled Stop The Shift Show: Turn Your Struggling Hourly Workers into a Top-Performing Team will be released in February 2024.