An Entitlement Complex, or Gen Y’s Quest for Meaning?

In the late 1950s, Frederick Herzberg conducted surveys on what we now term “The Greatest Generation,” those who fought during WWII. Selecting a group of factory workers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Herzberg asked “what do you like and dislike about your job?” After months of research and a literature review of thousands of similar studies, Herzberg concluded that there were two factors that predicted whether someone would like or dislike their position.

First were “hygiene” factors. These were factors that, if absent, contributed to an employee disliking their position. These included: good working conditions, fair pay, security of tenure, health and dental plans.

Second were “motivation” factors, these contributed to an employee liking their position. These included: recognition for a good job done, responsibility, achievement and promotional opportunities.


(A Factory in Pittsburgh c. 1950)

Sixty years later, after Herzberg’s groundbreaking study, a new generation (Generation Y) have been condemned for lacking “motivation” in the workplace.

And by God how right this is. Generation Y are completely lacking in the “motivation” factors Herzberg found necessary for job satisfaction in the 1950s. With the increase in unpaid internships, a continual rise in youth unemployment and the chronic rate of underemployment in Australia and abroad, an entire generation is feeling the pinch of not having enough “recognition, responsibility, achievement and opportunity for advancement and reward”.

Instead of being a generation of entitlement, the youth are fast moving towards becoming a new Lost Generation, in the vein of those who had nothing during the heights of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Following the GFC, austerity cuts across Europe, and the now commonly greater than 20% youth unemployment rate across the developed world, this new “Lost Generation” has no hope of finding their own way home. Nevermind owning one.


Ignoring all of these realities are a few self-appointed “sages” of the journalistic profession who have repackaged and rebranded the crisis into the youth’s own problem.

‘The Real Problem With Gen Y,’ a Daily Life headline begins, and goes on to list stereotypical characteristics: ‘disloyal, grabby, venal.’ Before ending with the clincher, “entitled.”

The biggest issue with the current generation is not the problems they face but the attitude they take to those problems. The biggest problem is not the chronic rate of youth unemployment across the world but the “Entitlement Complex” of those unemployed youth.

Putting aside the fact that all stereotypes are logical fallacies, the sheer number of stereotypes about Generation Y is so staggering that they easily begin to contradict each other when listed side by side:

Gen Y are lazy but ambitious, tech savvy, yet heralding a ‘reverse enlightenment’, the dumbest generation, yet consistently scoring higher IQ’s than any previous generation, Generation Sell, yet buying more than ever, Generation Me, yet obsessed with social media and connection, and finally, entitled because they are told they are unique, and yet, uniquely entitled.


What is lost in this debate is what Herzberg found in the 1950’s when he studied the “Greatest Generation.”

Herzberg found that simplistic measures of offering a greater salary, for instance, did not necessarily make employees feel more satisfied about their position. There are more intrinsic measures that add to human satisfaction. Calling Generation Y entitled as a whole makes little sense, when these intrinsic motivators exist across all generations. As a whole, employees tend to prefer an hour of talking about themselves over a pay rise, for instance, a recent study found.

The difference is that the former, talking about ourselves, goes to something essential – our essential selves – while the latter, getting a pay rise, goes to something materialistic – our materialistic selves, being a product of social construction and socially-reinforced commercialisation. It may well be that caring about yourself is a narcissistic form of entitlement, but caring about money is surely a greater and grander vice. A friend recently told me  that “anything that has no market value should cease to exist.” Along with Joe Hockey’s now infamous “earn or learn” dichotomy, this kind of message from economists and “realists” has become the new parlance of meaning; it seeks to value the material above all else, and diminish the personal as meaningless. Generation Y’s quest for personal meaning is thus meaningless, while all meaning comes from economic indicators instead.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 8.19.42 PM

These are the mantra of the disillusioned: the lost souls who have forgotten the intrinsic joys of life that have no market value. Things like philosophy, religion, art and music. Anything that has no market value should cease to exist. So then, shall God, Joe?


Tim Urban, writing for the Huffington Post, says that Gen Y are simply “delusional” in wanting to “enjoy” their working lives. Tim suggests Gen Y should instead settle for the “security” and “safety” that so fulfilled their parents’ generation. This generalization of yet another generation (the Baby Boomers) again proves false. Research shows the Baby Boomers also liked “motivation” factors in the workplace, of the kind Herzberg endorsed.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 8.38.05 PM

“I suppose I could be president,” Urban mocks in a stick figure cartoon, “but is politics really the truest calling of my heart?’

It is this kind of self-questioning (pictured above) that is consistently mocked and parodied in most articles on “The Entitlement Complex.” And yet it is precisely this kind of self-questioning that leads people to discover meaning in their own lives. There is some strange new paradigm where seeking meaning, or even seeking the meaning of life, is an entitled thing to do, while “paying your dues” and “contributing to the economy” is to be expected as a matter of course. (As a blindly followed alternative). Treasurer Joe Hockey asks the young “How can you contribute to the economy?” not “How can you find meaning in your life?”

And he asks it at a time when youth unemployment has risen above 27.2% – the highest in over 20 years. At a time when 64% of Australians are actively seeking new work, and at a time when 8/10 surveyed say they hate their current jobs. In other words, he is asking people to contribute to the economy, when doing exactly that has made the majority of Australian workers unhappy.


Former Yale Professor, William Deresiwicz, says that “wisdom with age and experience” is a fundamentally flawed expression. Wisdom does not come from age and experience, he insists. It comes from age, experience and self-reflection. And it is this last, self-reflection, that tends to be demonised in Generation Y as a form of indecisive, self-worship that harms the growth of the economy. Sometimes yes, self-actualisation will be harmful to the economy. Escaping abroad for a year, taking a gap year, retiring to some Tibetan monastery, none will prop up Australia in a time of economic crisis. But each may prop up the individual in a time of personal or spiritual crisis. And it is this transformation of the self over one’s lifetime that leads to self-actualisation and a deep sense of personal fulfilment.

It is here that the matter of choosing comes in.

Do we choose personal fulfilment or economic development? It seems by the stats that we cannot choose both. Either we hate our jobs, or we prop up the economy. Either retail rises (the industry with the highest employee turnover in the country), or we all become less materialistic. When Christmas time rolls around and the endless news segments begin about retail falling, we can ask, is this really a negative? Is it wrong if people are becoming less materialistic? Is it wrong that they are buying less?

It harms the economy but does it harm the soul?

The reality, ignored by Joe and others, is that hatred of your job is the new norm; actively looking for a new job is an activity done by the majority of employees across the country. Materialism is on the decline, we are growing up. We are seeking more out of life. This is not limited to Generation Y but exists in all employees.

And so we come to the big question:

Why is this “seeking” a negative?

Surely, the vast majority of people hating their jobs is the real negative here, that’s never discussed?

As it goes there’s nothing wrong with hard work, but there is something wrong with meaningless hard work. The kind of work that defines futility, like the myth of Sisyphus, constantly rolling the bolder up the hill only for it to roll back down again, for him to start again. It is an attitude, a new attitude, perpetuated by those who –regardless of how long it takes to get a reward- (a reward other than money), tell you that you simply have to keep on trying. Sometimes, you are Sisyphus. Sometimes people around you are telling you to keep rolling the bolder up the hill, as if expecting gravity to change by the time you reach the top. Gravity does not change. And the gravity in the modern workforce is the indifference that others have for you achieving what you want to do with your life.

What-do-you-desire alan watts

I am talking here about a boss that encourages you to quit when he knows your job is killing you, instead of giving you a pay rise.

At a certain point, like Sisyphus, you give so much of yourself to a job that you are no longer yourself. At a certain point you become the work, rather than the work becoming a means of accomplishing something meaningful with your life. At a certain point, we lose all touch with meaning and become economic agents in Joe Hockey’s dystopian future.

And all intrinsic beautiful parts of the world die into nothingness never to be seen again because they have no value to the market economy.

At a certain point entitlement turns from absurdity into tragedy and finally into farce.