Millennials not as selfish as some people think

Some have said the millennial generation want it all without having to work for it. But that perception is at odds with the latest research.

New study says they prioritize wealth, jobs and family differently than previous generations

According to a new poll, millennials are willing to live in smaller spaces, work for less money and delay starting families until their finances are in order. (ITU Pictures/Flickr)

The millennial generation – those born between the early 1980s and 2000s – is sometimes described in unflattering terms. 

Millennials want it all without having to work for it, or so the thinking goes. 

New York director Stephen Parkhurst lampooned the idea in a YouTube video called Millennials: We Suck and We're Sorry, which has been viewed more than three million times.

The popular perception that millennials are lazy and entitled is at odds with the latest research.

In a recent Heartland Monitor Poll, 1,000 Americans were asked what they value most in a first job. The majority of those in their mid-30s and older said money and skills mattered most. The majority of millennials, on the other hand, said fulfillment and making a difference were their primary motivators.

The poll was the latest in a series co-sponsored by the insurance company Allstate and the National Journal magazine looking at how Americans are experiencing the changing economy.

The poll is American, but you see the same thing in Canada, says Paul Kershaw, an associate professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

'Privileged childhoods'

​He formed a group called Generation Squeeze, which is lobbying for better treatment of those under 40.

Kershaw says the perception of millennials as entitled stems from their upbringing.

"Younger generations in Canada today probably have enjoyed one of the most privileged childhoods that's ever been available on the planet," he says.

"Our parents came of age when wages were good and housing prices were fortuitous for them, and they loved and took good care of us in ways that were remarkably privileged. And I think that privileged childhood then characterizes the way in which younger generations are perceived as young adults."

But Kershaw says that perception isn't in line with reality, and that millennials are in fact willing to accept less than previous generations.

He offers examples of younger people being willing to go without a car, live in a smaller space or delay starting a family until their finances are in order.

"Those are major adaptations compared to the past that I don't think younger generations get credit for," he says.

Spreading the message

Kershaw is on a mission to spread this message. The figure he currently uses is that governments spend about three times as much on a retiree as they do on someone under age 45. That's why he believes millennials aren't demanding enough.

"They don't dream... of thinking about governments doing things to adapt to the fact they earn less, pay higher costs, have less time and have a deteriorating environment," he says.

"I think that's one of the places where actually we need younger Canadians to feel more entitled. More entitled to have a world of politics that works for them simultaneously while it works for others, including the people that they love, like their parents and grandparents."

Kershaw says he doesn't want millennials to be pitted against the previous generations, because we are all connected.

He adds that the impact of young people not finding suitable work or affordable housing, or waiting to start a family, will inevitably be felt by their parents, too.

The latest Allstate/National Journal/Heartland Monitor Poll surveyed 900 American adults by phone between May 17 and 27, 2015, and did an additional sample of 200 young adults aged 18-24 by phone. These interviews were then weighted by age, gender and race/ethnicity to produce a nationally representative sample of 1,000, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.