(cross-posted on ARTSBlog for this week’s 20UNDER40 discussion on emerging leaders and intergenerational dialogue)

(Note: I was inspired to experiment with this form by a guest post on Sean Stannard-Stockton’s Tactical Philanthropy blog by Nonprofit Finance Fund Capital Partners founder George Overholser. I hope you enjoy it.)

  • An oft-heard complaint about Generation Y (and other “emerging leaders”) is that they have a sense of entitlement—that they think they are smarter than everyone else.
  • I don’t believe that people in Generation Y are any smarter than generations that came before.
  • HOWEVER, here’s something I do believe:
    • The people in Generation Y that YOU DEAL WITH in YOUR OFFICE are very likely smarter than the people who would have been in that office in earlier generations.
    • Which means that they may well be smarter than YOU!
  • The secret power of Generation Y is not that we’re smarter: it is that we are MORE!
    • More numerous: the population of the world is 6.7 billion, 81% higher than it was in 1970.
    • More highly educated: 29% of Americans age 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees now, compared to 11% in 1970.
    • More professional: Nearly one-third of employed Americans work in the so-called “creative class” (i.e., white-collar professions), compared to about a fifth in 1970.
    • More egalitarian: the percentage of women in the workplace has shot up both domestically (from 43% to 59% between 1970 and 2006) and internationally, and racial barriers to employment have lessened significantly.
    • More ambitious: The number of high-quality colleges that offer meaningful financial aid has exploded; many more scholarships exist for talented low-income individuals.
    • More international: Enrollment by foreign residents in US colleges and universities is up significantly in recent decades.
    • More technologically able: More about the technology than the people; the Internet has completely revolutionized the way we communicate and think about opportunity.
  • The result of all of these factors is that the size of the qualified labor pool who applies for things like entry-level arts administration jobs in the United States is much, much higher than it used to be.
    • Sure, the number of arts administration jobs has increased, too. But based on the cultural economics literature I’ve been reading recently, I’m not convinced that this is taking place any faster than overall US growth in GDP. My hunch is that the qualified labor pool has increased much more.
  • What happens when the pool of qualified candidates increases relative to the opportunities available?
    • Let’s take the Olympics as an example.
    • China won zero gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympic games, out of 195 total.
    • In 2008, China won 51 gold medals, or 17% of the total—more than any other nation.
    • Does this mean Chinese athletes are infinitely better in 2008 than they were in 1972?
      • Of course not – it means that far more Chinese have the opportunity to compete for a gold medal in 2008 instead of toiling in the rice fields or sweat shops for their entire lives.
      • The talent was always there – but now less of it is getting wasted because of discrimination, prejudice, income inequality, and social fragmentation.
    • So Chinese athletes presumably had no more natural talent in 2008 than they did in 1972—
      • But the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 2008 were more talented than the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 1972.
  • Take this metaphor to arts administration in 2009.
    • It’s not that Generation Y is any smarter than the generations that came before.
    • It’s that more of us have the opportunity to compete for arts administration jobs – which, despite their flaws, are pretty awesome compared to careers many of our ancestors were stuck with instead.
    • As a result, the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs (who are the ones who get them) are smarter, on average, than the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs in a previous era (who are the ones now leading arts organizations).
      • (Assuming, again, that the growth in the number of arts admin jobs has not kept pace with the rise in qualified candidates for those jobs. Let’s just say I would be really, really surprised to learn otherwise.)
  • But wait! That’s not all!
    • Why are Generation Y employees so damn ambitious?
      • (Well, remember, we’re talking about the cream of the crop here—the unambitious ones will probably never get a chance to work with you.)
    • You see, with all of these talented people around us competing for the same jobs and spots in the class and other opportunities, we have to get used to being on top of our game.
    • That means we have to apply to more opportunities to have a decent chance of landing one, which conveniently is made far easier than it used to be by recent advances in technology. (Anyone remember typewriters?)
      • BUT! That means any given opportunity will have more people bidding for it, which makes getting that opportunity EVEN THAT MUCH MORE competitive! And so the cycle continues and feeds upon itself.
    • We have to continually show that we’re better than whomever else you might hire/accept/grant/award, which requires us to have a sharply defined sense of what “better” means.
      • Not to mention a healthy sense of self-confidence. After all, if we’re going to go into an interview and tell you that we’re the best candidate for what you’re offering, we’d better believe it ourselves.
    • If we are pre-disposed to look for and recognize examples of superior performance, is it any surprise if we get impatient when examples of it on our part go unrecognized by our superiors?
      • Is it any surprise, in that situation, that we find ourselves looking outside of our organization for the recognition that we’re failing to get from within it?
  • So to sum up,
    • Generation Y is not smarter than anyone else.
    • But the specific members of Generation Y populating your office probably are.
      • And if they are, that’s a testament to your hiring skills! Nice work!
    • Not only that, they probably have their eyes on bigger things than mail merges—because, in fact, they are capable of bigger things.
      • Which is good! Wouldn’t you rather have talented, multifaceted people on your team than folks who are satisfied doing one thing sort-of well?
  • Finally, if you’re reading this and find yourself overcome with intergenerational resentment, you can comfort yourself with this thought:
    • However uncomfortable this may be for you, it’s going to be far worse for us when it’s time for Generation Z or AA or whatever to enter the workplace. All of those trends towards “more” are not likely to let up anytime soon, after all.
    • That’s why it’s critical that we reform our organizations NOW to take proper advantage of great ideas and constructive feedback wherever and whoever they come from, so that we won’t find ourselves in the exact same position 20 years from today.
  • I’m finding myself wishing blogs had the Facebook “thumbs up” widget, seeing as I’d often like to express that I enjoyed the post but don’t feel I have much to add.

    So hey! Thumbs up!

  • Love the bullet points. And of course as a 24-year-old who has done some entry-level gruntwork with arts organizations, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment.

  • Allison

    “But the specific members of Generation Y populating your office probably are.”

    What comes across is that many Gen-Y’ers have an unrealistically high opinion of themselves without living up to it

    Lots of flashy marketing… empty marketing

    A very entitled, me-me-me, boring lot

    Not all are, but a lot are

    Time to look around yourselves a little

    • Chris


      Oh come on… did you just say? They are self centered but should take a closer look at themselves? All young people are trying to define themselves. They are entering a completely F*&#$ed up working world, run by boomers who more often than not, used bad if not fraudulent business practices as the norm. Gen Y’ers enter these offices and it just smells wrong… the lying, backbiting, inter-office politics — Y’ers just think ‘Wow how about doing your damn job instead of blaming your KIDS generation for somehow screwing it up.’

      Look at the market, look at your own business practices, look at the fruits of all your labor. Then tell me that your generation is the greatest thing since the invention of the lightbulb.

      The veterans generation was the last great generation. They were tough, hardworking and inventive. Boomer and X’s have only contributed hype, greed, and bullshit.

  • Pingback: Why Personal Branding is the Most Effective Career Tool for Young Professionals: A Bullet Point Manifesto | Rosetta Thurman()

  • an intriguing post and some good arguments but,

    there is considerable reliance on the assumption that “going to college” makes one more qualified, when sometimes it makes one more generic. a college degree is sometimes simply a sign that one has had more economic backing on all fronts from more well to do parents, or a sign that one is willing and able to accept the bureaucratic / institutional experience, and sometimes it denotes a lack (or even fear) of non-academic experience.

    another problem with such increased “education” is that any flaw in that system is now magnified, as we have less diversity, i.e., fewer people in positions of power who have non-traditional educational backgrounds to draw from. as an example, consider just how many ivy league business school grads participated (colluded?) in the recent economic issues.


  • John Shibley

    Great post Ian, and your arguments make the kind of mathematical sense that they often do.

    Two caveats…

    1. You assert that… “The people in Generation Y that YOU DEAL WITH in YOUR OFFICE are very likely smarter than the people who would have been in that office in earlier generations. Which means that they may well be smarter than YOU!”

    That works, it seems to me, only if I am no smarter than when I was first in someone’s office. Maybe that’s true, but my experience is that the smartest people, the people most likely to be hiring someone, have gotten smarter with time. In general and at a level of gross generalization, the advancement system selects for intelligence and achievement in general. So, if the YOU in this case is someone who gotten a promotion, or two, or six, by beating out other people, there is at least a chance that they may be smarter than the person in their office who has not done so.

    2. There’s intelligence and there’s intelligence.

    A smart 20 something with cognitive horsepower out the yin yang is smart in a very different way that a smart people manager is smart, or a smart ED is smart. The sensitivity to get the best out of talented but difficult people, the judgment about when not to act, the capacity to diagnose and correct one’s errors, the ability to distinguish between when something is not happening because of a delay in the system and when something is not happening because it ain’t gonna happen… those are different smarts, and not right-out-of-the-box school smart. It’s the kind of smart that people get after years of making mistakes.

    And thinking that someone has THAT kind of smart without having made the mistakes… well… that’s just not very smart.

  • Aaron Andersen

    As a person right on the cusp of Gen X and Gen Y, I feel annoyed by the sense of entitlement that I see in my peers and especially those slightly younger than me. And occasionally I spot it in myself, to my own dismay.

    But as a person who comes from theater, I think the best approach here is the advice given to theater actors and directors and playwrights all the time. Don’t tell me, show me. Nonprofits, just like any other business, need to see demonstrated results to give us that perfect job.

  • Brandon Thornton

    A good assessment in my opinion. My main thing is this, why is this sense of self entitlement a bad thing. You know what I embrace it!!!! And the Boomers out there can sit there and twist their mustaches cause they have the money, well keep it…. for now. When fewer Gen-y’ers take jobs, fewer products/commodities will get sold in the long run, because we’ve learned to do without and we can’t afford them anyway so where’s your money gonna come from!!!! Certainly not from my pocket.

    I mean let’s be real I went to college and now I owe a whole lot of money in student loans. Okay, so me and all of my fellow Gen-Y’ers grew up having “you can be whatever you want to be” and “the American dream is achievable” getting shoved down our throats. “Go to college so you can get a better job.” Thanks for nothing. So now you expect me to work a low wage job because “the economy is bad and something is better than nothing” hmmm… lets see:

    Your minimum wage job can’t support me considering I have to pay rent, utilities, student loans, car insurance, and a cell phone bill. Literally this is impossible to do with the money you’re giving me. What makes it even worse is the incredible gap between incomes at different levels. Let’s take the retail industry for example (which I have some experience in). So people go to stores like Anthropologie (where I worked at one point) and drop $80 for a piece of clothing that cost that store roughly $7-15 to buy. That’s a profit of $65-73 for that shirt (and that’s not even the expensive one). Great you, just made enough profit to almost double my pay for an 8-hour shift all day with the sale of 2 measly shirts (at $10/hour) . There were probably 20 employees there on any give day with similar salaries to mine about 10 of those only worked 4 hours that day, plus there are maybe 3-5 mangers in the store who make a little bit more than most, say they make $20 an hour (and that’s generous I’m sure).

    So let’s do the math and have some fun :

    Part Time Employees (10 employees/4 hours each/$9 per hour)
    40 man hours = $360 per day

    Full Time Employees (10 employees/8 hours each/$10 per hour)
    80 man hours = $800 per day

    Managers (5 employees/8 hours each/$20 per hour)
    40 man hours = $800 per day

    Building rental cost ($30,000 per month, seriously I’m being ultra generous here)
    30 days per month = $1000 per day

    Utilities ($30,000 per month Lighting, Power, Internet, generous again I’m sure)
    30 Days per month = $1000 per day

    That’s $3960 per day in “operating cost”

    Now add merchandise profit margin average of 1000% on a shirt (paid $8 / sold $80)
    So we add the cost of merchandise sold to the operating cost
    ($20,000 day / $2,000 in merchandise)

    We come to a total of $5,960 per day so let’s be SUPER GENEROUS and say it costs $8000 per day to operate the store, cause I don’t know EVERYTHING that needs money thrown at it (I’m sure there’s licenses and there is some theft to account for).

    That’s a profit of $12,000 PER DAY at my store alone on a SLOW DAY. During holidays we would easily be hitting $45-50k in sales per day. And in the meetings we get “isn’t it great the store did so well, thanks for the hard work!!!!” So where does that money go?!?!?!?! Certainly not to me because I struggle to pay the friggin’ bills. So yeah I feel f***ing entitled cause without me you can’t sell your stuff and make amazingly fat profits.


    And yes it really is this simple:

  • Great Post! I don’t think Boomers should fear Gen Y. But I do think Boomers need to adapt to changes in technology, and continue their education. That way Gen Y doesn’t have the upper hand on certain areas of the resume.

  • Harmonia

    I’m sorry. I really disagree with you.
    As a university teacher, I must tell you that the
    quality of writing of many college graduates today
    is utterly sub-par, and certainly at a level lower than
    when I graduated (1975!). Really, the most accurate
    single test of cognitive/critical/analytic ability
    is writing. Dis you use bullet points to avoid writing
    a coherent essay?

    Your claim that Gen Y is not “smarter” in general and your following claim that
    Gen Y’ers in offices are smarter than people in offices in the past
    make no sense. What’s your point? That if a Gen Y’er gets into an office that person
    is bound to be smarter than people in offices in the past? What is it about an office now
    that makes the Gen Y’er smarter? And why does the fact that there are more of you make you “smarter”? Please enlighten me.

    Ambitiousness isn’t always a virtue. It often hides tragic personal limitations, such as insensitivity to others, materialism, one-dimensionality, and lack of a spiritual or moral compass. What I notice in your age group–and it’s nothing to be proud of–is a detachment and arrogance, as well as a lack of understanding why respect for some traditions is crucial. But I assume that the Gen Y balloon will lose a bit of air as you age, for it happens to everyone. After all, you are human. I think so, anyway

    I would seriously advise your generation to reflect carefully on the things you are so sure of. It is a hallmark of being in your 20’s to be sure of yourself in everything. But it is only with experience that you realize how little you know and how little you can control. That does not change, and life experience counts for far more than you know now.