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“One man’s entitlement is another man’s empowerment.”

This quote (or misquote, as it were) came out of a round table discussion on empowerment which raised, amongst others, the question as to whether new entrants into the workforce display traits of being entitled or empowered.

A common accusation against millennials is one of being entitled. Two UK researchers, Ayudhya and Smithson, address this in a research article focusing on the generational debate ‘Entitled or Misunderstood?’ They consider entitlement from two different perspectives – firstly from a managerialist perspective where entitlement to a work-life balance is viewed as a negative trait, and secondly where a sense of entitlement is viewed from a situational perspective rather than an internal characteristic. This situational perspective refers to the need to judge entitlement within the context of the present social and economic environment rather than through the lens of personal morals and standards.

As Ayudhya and Smithson point out: ‘a basic assumption [of the managerialist approach] is that each generation shares similar work values and expectations’. Therefore, following this perspective, each generation judges other generations based on their experience of the past. This is a dangerous assumption, since, as shown in the below chart on social development and a similar hockey stick chart showing the accelerated growth of technology, change is happening at an ever increasing rate both socially and technologically for each generation, and therefore expectations for successive generations quickly become out of date.

As these graphs illustrate, it is increasingly difficult to judge social and technological standards according to the values of previous generations. Many of the articles classifying millennials as entitled are based on managerialistic opinions that continue to see hard work as more important than a work-life balance.

In their study, Ayudhya and Smithson found that millennials viewed their relationship with work (and specifically the work-life balance) differently. Whilst those from an Asian background (living in the UK) saw employer support for work-life balance as a bonus, those from a western background had a stronger belief that work-life balance ‘was primarily a matter of individual choice and therefore, a personal responsibility’.

Perhaps a sense of entitlement is being projected from an increase in individualism? A paper by Santos, Varnum and Igor Grossman (co-host with Charles Cassidy of the brilliant podcast On Wisdom) explored whether individualism has increased over the past several decades. Examining individualistic practices and values across 78 countries, their findings ‘suggested that individualism is indeed rising in most of the societies tested’.

Whether entitlement and individualism are linked requires a longer discussion, but a good place to start is with the work of the American philosopher, Robert Nozick and his paper on Entitlement. For Norzick, “individuals have rights and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”. Whilst, for the most part, Nozick focuses on property rights, he also includes the rights over our own bodies (and perhaps by extension – entitlement over our views). Therefore, as we become more individualistic, we also become stronger in our view as to what we consider to be naturally ‘ours’. The UN advocates that “Education is a basic human right” – education is just one of many ‘rights’ that we are now entitled to, which was not available to previous generations. But being entitled to something, does not necessarily make us ‘entitled’.

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Entitlement and education

Leena Taimi, Nokia Sourcing Innovation & Performance Lead and one of the participants in the roundtable discussion, outlined the importance of the relationship between entitlement and empowerment.

“The younger people in my team, no matter where they come from, they own the world. And I love it. Therefore, a degree of entitlement is good I think, as you don’t need to be asking for permission to feel empowered,” Taimi states.

Part of this sense of entitlement comes from education as a basic right. In an article from the World Economic Forum, it is stated that the millennial generation is the most educated in history (and presumably generation Z will become even more educated).

This level of education can lead to a sense of invincibility as commented by Annemarie Osborne, a senior marketing and content strategist. “I really do believe that those who have had a privileged upbringing and privileged social status feel much more invincible compared to someone who has had to work from the ground up to develop themselves.”

So is this invincibility a good thing? Whilst it can translate into a ‘I don’t care what you think’ attitude, as Taimi mentioned “there is this mental safety net that allows them to feel empowered.”

Entitlement, empowerment and intrinsic motivation

Osborne puts across the view that “entitlement is ego-driven, insomuch as the ego is looking outside of one’s self for validation. Whereas empowerment is self-driven and does not require external validation.”

Whilst there may be a constant need for validation fostered by social media – creating a link between external validation and entitlement, opposingly, there is little evidence that Millennials or those from Generation Y are any more or less intrinsically motivated than those from Generation X. This is important as intrinsic motivation relates to the self and being self-driven (and therefore being empowered).

In my experience, intrinsic motivation will always trump extrinsic motivation. I have yet to meet any employee who stayed at a company when extrinsic motivation was given more importance than intrinsic motivation. Ironically, perhaps part of the reason for the accusations of entitlement towards younger generations has been created by those companies who place more importance on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation (it is easier to provide employee benefits than create a sense of purpose) as highlighted in an article on Chief Executive by Lior Arussy:

“The main difference between employee experiences driven by benefits (parties and other perks) [extrinsic motivation] and employee experience driven by impact [intrinsic motivation] is very clear. The former focuses on doing things to employees. The latter focus on enabling employees to do things for others. Benefits-driven employee experiences treat employees as either spoiled brats or people devoid of power who need things done for them. Impact-driven employee experience treats employees as mature, powerful, people ready to make a difference. This is the distinction between entitlement and empowerment.”

It is easy to judge others as ‘entitled’, but before throwing the first stone at the proverbial glass house, it is worth asking, for example, whether you are working too hard and not spending enough time with families and friends? If so, perhaps you need to reassess what you are entitled to.

You might find it very empowering.

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