The millennials who think they’re simply the best

They graduate with high expectations, but may be setting themselves up for disappointment

High hopes: millennials with an engineering degree may think they will be on a major project straight away. Photograph: Thinkstock

High hopes: millennials with an engineering degree may think they will be on a major project straight away. Photograph: Thinkstock


They are the last of the “millennials”, the generation born between the late 1970s and mid-1990s.

They emerge from college with expectation, hope and, often, the belief they can achieve whatever they want. But do today’s college graduates have unrealistic expectations and an inflated view of themselves?

Paul Harvey, a professor of management at the University of New Hampshire, thinks so. He conducted research which found millennials – a cohort also referred to as generation Y and which includes me – had “unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback” and “an inflated view of oneself”.

He says that “a great source of frustration for people with a strong sense of entitlement is unmet expectations. They often feel entitled to a level of respect and rewards that aren’t in line with their actual ability and effort levels, and so they might not get the level of respect and rewards they are expecting.”

The upshot of this is that, without careful nurturing, millennials might be particularly unhappy with, or disappointed by, their career.

Is this true, is it fair, and can his research be applied to Ireland? Yes, it is both true and fair, and it can be, says Melrona Kirrane, a professor of organisational psychology at Dublin City University who also lectures in leadership at Princess Nora University in Saudi Arabia. But, she hastens to add, millennials also have some hugely positive traits that employers recognise as valuable.


‘Generational changes’

“Some research would suggest they are not really that different to those who have gone before them; it’s just that older generations see them differently. But there are some generational changes which affect their approach to work. The research can only speak in generalities, but some of the attributes worth noting and which are well-documented in the literature are increased self-confidence and narcissism. This narcissism comes about as a result of cultural changes in parenting. Everyone gets a medal on sports day for showing up, and everyone is special. The rise of helicopter parenting – parents who take an excessive and controlling interest in their child’s life – puts that child at the centre of the parents’ world, and it is more likely to make that child think they are brilliant.”


Millennials, like previous generations, have been shaped by the dominant narratives and events around them. The September 11th attacks were their defining moment, but they have also grown up in a time of newly emerging economies in Asia and South America, globalisation and climate change.

Kirrane says today’s college graduates are more likely to have an “external locus of control”, which means they feel the events in their life are caused by outside factors rather than by their own actions.

“A feeling of disempowerment could be connected to higher levels of depression and anxiety, although it could also be that we’re noticing increased mental health problems because people are finally talking about mental health issues.”

The carefully curated Facebook/Instagram posts of millennials’ peers suggest fabulous relationships, careers and lives; if their own life doesn’t seem to match up, this can be depressing and disheartening. “Millennials are competing more on the world stage, and the opportunity to evaluate yourself against your peers who are updating you about their brilliant job in San Francisco or Hong Kong is always there. When you live your life on social media, it’s easy to feel weaker or inadequate,” says Kirrane.

Ireland’s millennials are more likely to be obese compared with their European counterparts. Speaking generally, says Kirrane, they’re also more educated but spend more than six times the number of hours watching TV and playing video games than they do reading books.


Non-verbal cues

They are tech savvy, team players and autonomous, but they aren’t great at reading non-verbal cues and knowing when they’ve crossed a line, and they can be self-centred. If they don’t like something at work, they’re more inclined to blog about it, presenting both opportunities and challenges for their employers. And they’re much more concerned about inclusion, equality, diversity and the environment, and want their employers to value gender equality, LGBT rights and racial diversity.


Kirrane says millennials want opportunities for advancement, plenty of feedback, and good people to work with. “There are paradoxes: they are loyal, but their focus is on the short-term and how to make the current moment better. Their parents may have started a job in their 20s and felt they would have that job for life, but millennials know that there isn’t a job for life anymore, so they develop behavioural repertoires that match that.”

Are they, as Harvey suggests, more entitled? “They may be,” says Kirrane. “A graduate coming out of university with an engineering degree may think they will be on a major project straight away. And they may be on a major project – making the coffee.”

Jane Lorigan, managing director of, says there can be a gap between graduate expectations and reality, but that there are ways of bridging this gap.

“There are, broadly, two sets of employers. One is looking for graduates coming out of college with specific skills. Another set operates graduate entry programmes which develop their skills. Today’s graduates are likely to change their job and career as they progress through life. Opportunities in clean technologies and big data didn’t exist a decade ago; in another decade, it will be something different. Graduates need to be aware – and, in fairness, they are – that their education doesn’t end after college; work and education will go hand in hand as they progress through their career, and upskilling and retraining will be constant.”

Thomas Garavan is professor of leadership at Edinburgh Napier University and director of Positive Career Options, an Irish career consultancy. He previously worked at the University of Limerick and, in his current role, regularly works with graduates who are just leaving college.

Garavan says that, when graduates are indecisive about their career, this can eventually lead to lower job satisfaction levels. On the other hand, those who start or leave third-level with a clear idea of where they want to go tend to be ultimately happier in the workplace.


Clued-in and responsible

“When I was in UL I was seeing students who had completed first year, didn’t know what they wanted to do, and were disgusted if they failed their exams and angry about their career. But I also met some who were very clued-in and responsible.”


He echoes Kirrane’s concern about helicopter parents. “I’ve met some parents, especially mothers, who don’t give the student room to make their own decisions about their career, pushing them in a socially desirable direction.”

Both Kirrane and Garavan work with organisations and corporations to help them improve their approach to graduate recruitment and graduate employment programmes.

“There’s a culture, especially in banking and finance, that the best are hired,” says Garavan. “These graduate programmes or internships can be tough, with long hours and high performance expectations. And it’s not always glamorous.

“The young people come in with high hopes and think that after a year or two on the job, they’re ready to be promoted. While they should always strive to be the best they can be, they also need to be realistic.”


What millennials want from their employer

Prof Melrona Kirrane advises various employers on intergenerational hiring and says there are a number of steps they can take to get the best from their young hires:

- They want their employer to be more like a friend than a formal boss.

- They value rewards and recognition and must receive regular feedback.

- They want merit-based promotion, not a lifetime of work for the same organisation with a gold watch upon retirement.

- They want to feel like they are part of team and they want to be listened to and be heard.

- They hate micromanagement; their managers should give broad outlines and trust them, rather than give step-by-step rigid instructions.

- They want to understand what their contribution is to the big picture of the organisation and to feel that they are making an impact beyond their own niche area.

- They value prompt responses: rather than ignoring their email, they want managers and colleagues to at least give a brief response and let them know if they are not interested in taking an idea further.




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