Gimme, gimme, gimme!

May 09 2011 by Karsten Jonsen Print This Article

Many generations have said "today's young people only think of themselves," but this time around it may be true. We recently witnessed a crisis sparked by self-contained bankers, politicians and CEOs, with systems and those serving them unable to prevent abuse of the collective; but we ain't seen nothin' yet!

Researchers and sociologists have noticed an increasing focus on the ME in recent generations. Termed by some as Generation Me, those from the most recent few decades are now on, entering, or preparing for the labor market. Throughout the world, the personal habits and behaviors of the young have implications for the future of business and the interactions between employer and employee.

In the United States, over the past decades researchers have measured narcissism – the inflated grandiose view of oneself, lack of empathy and need for admiration and self-enhancing experiences. This has led to the worrisome conclusion that youngsters are increasingly focused on maximizing the I in a new age where many people look out only for the wellbeing of themselves – often at the expense of others. Further, a growing number of people (students) are reported having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

But are the young, and their behaviors, a product of the old? The term "helicopter parent" is being used to describe parents who hover closely over their children, sparing them from the confrontations of reality. Likewise, in Scandinavia, the generation born in the 1980s and early 1990s are called "curling kids" because their parents constantly sweep in front of them, helping them to achieve maximum results with minimum effort.

Unlike in the past when names were chosen along certain norms, creating very common and similar names, contemporary parents look for names that are unique so their offspring can stand out from birth to grave. Today's parenting sees stardom in every child, many of who are brought up in small nuclear families as first born or only child. These kids come into the world with a feeling of royalty and will have difficulties with obedience and authority. Needless to say, this will have an impact on their professional futures.

Perhaps, as a consequence of increased narcissism, the wider bonds and relationships people have with their community are rapidly decreasing. More thoughts and action are related to taking rather than giving. This has tremendous impact on social systems. And, in companies and organizations this can cause issues on many levels. For example, researchers have found that people with entitlement beliefs activate fault-lines and create disharmony in their workgroups.

How did we get here?

Parenting, as mentioned above, is partly to blame (although there are also many positive effects of modern parenting and many parents connect better with their children today than previous generations did). But, could sports and business practices also be setting precedent for increased narcissism and entitlement? Inter Milan's coach, Rafa Benitez, was recently let go due to a lack of results, for which he received a check of more than E.3 million, shortly after his former club Liverpool had also paid him £3 million to leave. That's more than six million for non-performance that he was entitled to by contract.

Meanwhile, HP's Mark Hurd initially received a $35 million severance package, after being ousted for ethical violations. BP's ex-CEO, Tony Hayward, famously moaned about how the oil spill disaster disrupted his life, and even in the midst of the financial crisis the world watched bankers lined up for rescue packages, bonuses and exit parachutes. No wonder entitlement is going haywire!

Aside from parents and business practices, in many Western societies certain living trends seem to create an inertial push for entitlement and narcissism. First, we have the commuter concept, where many live in suburbs far from the town or industrial estates where they work. This geographic separation makes people increasingly distant from the community in which they live and serve, and their civic involvement is rapidly decreasing.

Second, there has been an increasing focus on self-expression and individualism ever since the late 1960s. Everyone is now treated differently according to one's unique taste, personality and preferences. Simply ordering a coffee these days takes an immense cognitive effort given the hundreds of variants. The internet in particular provides applications for individualization of all kinds, with social networking sites allowing anyone to display themselves for 15 minutes of fame, every day and without cost.

Finally, we are seeing an overwhelming appetite for celebrities, richness and superficial materialism. People can now become famous literally overnight and, through celebrity spotting internet services, we can easily keep track of where they are at any time. France's Mickael Vendetta and world renowned, Paris Hilton serve as examples of the ultimate 'me' based marketing and consumption.

Where does this leave business leaders?

The consequences related to human resources and to the leaders responsible for managing future corporations are complex and ambiguous. If the new generations entering the work force are indeed more narcissistic and increasingly feel entitled to rewards without an honest day's work and long term effort, we are looking at a challenging time ahead with more conflicts and "screw you" attitudes. And, because in some parts of the world there will be more work demand than supply, who will be calling the shots?

Jobs will be increasingly individually crafted – mostly by the employee! And by those organizations that fully understand career customization. The boundaries between work and life will be increasingly blurred or even non-existent, as people are connected 24x7. Some even argue overconnected.

Moreover, the switching between employers and projects will increase exponentially. A newcomer to today's labor market is expected to have three times as many employers (if not more) in his/her lifetime than previous generations did.

Is this all bad news? No. Not if the negative effects can be minimized, for example by increasingly focusing on group goals and group awards. New rules must be established that allow for zero tolerance when it comes to bullying, greed, or any form of narcissistic behavior.

The balance between employer and employees will shift and corporations need to be on their toes to stimulate their workforce continuously and to figure out new flexible ways of engaging and contracting with their employees. This means increasingly interesting and dynamic roles for HR managers who need to responsibly instigate less monitoring and control and more coaching, mentoring and sparring. It's a hard sell after a financial crisis.

Though some of the entitlement effects may seem disturbing, asocial and inappropriate, the new generations bring many advantages. We will see a generation of employees that are engaging, prone to taking initiatives and living more by their values rather than group-norms. Companies can expect to receive people who are globally connected, completely IT-savvy and who can thus function as reverse mentors.

In some ways, we are entering the first time in human history when the "student" is actually the more skilled person and the master needs guidance from below. Foremost, this generation will look for jobs with high autonomy, where they will achieve dynamic and experimental learning and continuous development as individuals.

As paradoxical as it may sound in the context of narcissism, younger generations increasingly seek organizations that are socially and environmentally responsible and companies who emphasize and operate on values – those who walk their value talk.

This juxtaposition presents a concept of caring for something that is somewhat universal, distant and intangible – yet brought to us daily by the media – while paying relatively little attention and respect to the nearest environment. It's a bit like donating to charity and not giving to one's extended family or community in need.

Oddly, perhaps, this represents a simultaneous combination of high individualism and high collectivism. For the businesses and organizations of tomorrow there may be a unique chance to "repair" this disparity by catering to individual needs, as well as providing a collective and communal altruism.

About The Author

Karsten Jonsen
Karsten Jonsen

Karsten Jonsen is a Research Fellow at IMD, one of the world's top-ranked business schools, located in Lausanne, Switzerland.