The Participation Trophy Generation

You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. “Millenials are entitled. I didn’t get a participation trophy when I was a kid. Young people are killing _____ industry.” Let’s pull this apart from a few different angles, shall we? There are economic, societal, and psychological forces at play that make this more complicated than a simple blame game. And if you’ve read my previous post about demanding more than “common sense,” you know I like to dig in past the billboard, headline, or 140-character perspective to tease out what’s going on underneath.

I am 28 years old, born in 1989 just two weeks after the Berlin Wall came down. This puts me squarely in the usual range given for GenY/Millenials of approximately 1980-1995. So of course this entire post could be tossed aside as some sort of “too sensitive” self-defense, but I hope you stick around a little longer than that to see what I have to say and perhaps explore of these perspectives a little further for yourself!


For starters, a quick look at some economic data from the US Economic Policy Institute for the past few decades (money means numbers means chart-friendly trends and figures!) shows that average CEO:employee wage ratio has skyrocketed since 1980 when many of our parents were entering the workforce. It used to be 20-30x (where economists recommend it should be) but is now in the ridiculous range of 300-500x in 2013. Not only that, but most of the new income from innovation, development, and productivity increases has been going to the already-absurdly-wealthy in our country, with the earnings of the top 1% far outpacing the rest of US workers and income concentration worse now than at any point since before the Great Depression.

Source: Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (updated 2015)


These are very clear data points, and they spell out an economic and work-culture trend that has been hitting most Americans age 20-40 very hard. There’s a 1stBank ad on I-25 coming up from Denver to Boulder that really pisses me off: it shows an individual aged 25-30 with the caption “I use my parents’ HBO account” and the bank’s tagline, Saving is in style. What a joke. Hell no, we aren’t trying to find a bunch of ways to save money because we’re frugal, selfish, or cool. We aren’t switching to locally-sourced foods or ethically-manufactured clothing because of “style,” it’s because we see things that we can’t afford or can’t sustain in the old models. We aren’t killing industries at whim, we’re pursuing new ways of behaving (not just new looks) that we find more ethical, more sustainable, or more economical. Take a look at the Netflix documentary A New Economy for several examples and a more lengthy discussion of this cultural shift. And although it’s not just Millenials engaging in these pursuits, most of these realizations are decidedly not the concerns that were common at a time when working full-time on the factory floor could support a family of 4 (or when a minimum wage summer job could put you through college debt-free). We aren’t being “stylish,” we’re barely scraping by because—despite being better educated, better aware, and better equipped with tools that have phenomenally increased our productivity—Millenials in the workforce make roughly 20% less than Baby Boomers were making at the same age.

Now you might be thinking, “Well that’s entitlement right there… they got $n so you deserve $n, too, huh.” But when a young person in the 2010s looks at salary information for a job they’re considering, they aren’t asking “What do I deserve?” but rather “What should I expect?” Salary reports take million of current jobs into account and show what the market is actually paying for equivalent job titles and backgrounds, and it follows the basics of supply and demand. A salary doesn’t come free, it’s not an “entitlement” or a hand out… it’s what a solid, dependable, educated, and educatable worker is being paid by local employers. Not to mention someone who has proven themselves to deliver far more than their original duties, or someone who is likely far more skilled with computers, software, and automation than the managers and executives who are hiring them.


This “I deserve” misconception and similar notions feed the accusation of “entitled” that is ceaselessly leveled at me and my [age] peers. But when we look closely, it should probably seem entirely reasonable for a young person to have believed what was constantly and universally told to them by their parents, teachers, and advisers (basically anyone older, trusted, and respected). Namely, that “If you do X, Y will happen.” So millions of young people actually did X, but—almost just as universally—do not see Y, and if they do it’s years later than anticipated or budgeted. Meanwhile we watch many of our peers skip X altogether and instead lie, cheat, and steal their way into millionairehood (did you watch Zuckerberg’s cringe-worthy “hearing” before Congress?) as US regulatory agencies continues to ignore—and in many instances actually encourage—tax loopholes, employee abuse, and other unethical business practices.

Millenials inherited a lot of problems in the world, and for the most part are trying desperately to solve them. US population has jumped by 30% since 1980, with world population increasing more than twice as fast. Environmental abuses are changing climates and sending species into extinction at a mind-boggling rate. Economic inequality is the worst it’s been in a century. And on top of all these real-world problems, we’re more connected to the rest of the world and more aware of issues than any generation before us, leading to a higher rate of stress-related social, psychological, and physical disorders. This isn’t to say that this is an unusual situation: every generation says “What’s the world coming to?” as it gets older, and thinks the next generation is a bunch of softies. I’m simply illustrating how the rise of the internet in our teens and tweens led to an explosive dissemination of information that has utterly changed how young Americans develop as adults and see ourselves in the world.


I mean, if there’s any truth to the “Millenials are entitled” cliché, it’s that we’re really the shock generation… in between our cushy-computerless-desk-job Boomer parents and the learned-climate-modeling-software-in-high-school GenZ. Millenials weren’t trained to fix society, and we weren’t raised with constant connection via internet and smartphones. We’re in shock as we come into [what would have been] our own [were we born 30 years earlier] and realize the massive amount of additional work that needs to be done to feel useful and content. Boomers didn’t have to do that work (though they did have, and still have, their own struggles), and GenZ has the benefit of being raised in it—being aware of environmental, economic, and social issues almost from birth, essentially knowing that they’ll have to be ready for it in adulthood. There won’t be many little league games at all if they can’t even provide clean air for their children.

And speaking of, the “Well I didn’t get a participation trophy when I was a kid” retort that Boomers and GenX give? You’re right. Kids growing up in 1950s got just as sad as kids growing up in the 1990s when they lost the big game. But they had parents raised in and hardened by the realities of global conflict, economic depression, and cultural instability. When the kids in the ’50s cried, their parents said “Jeez, man up,” or “Too bad, work harder next time.” And if they did, maybe they pulled out a W. An entire generation that learned throughout their upbringing that they could achieve almost anything by keeping their heads down and working hard enough—often without the help of their distanced household (parents born 1920s-30s weren’t called the Silent Generation for nothing). So imagine that those kids grow up, get married, have their own kids, and those kids are, well, not naturally great at baseball. The parents have been programmed their whole lives that they can work harder to get better results, and they might naturally apply that attitude to kids as well… cheer harder, shout louder, get meaner, and maybe eventually even insult the little league coach when all that hard work didn’t actually make their kids better catchers, pitchers, or hitters.

Trust me, every kid who’s lost at something wished they got a reward just for trying. But I sure never got a “Nice try!” award. I don’t know what the hell people are talking about with “participation trophies,” and I played baseball, basketball, ran track, and competed in artistic and musical competition from 1998 to 2008. Nonetheless, even if that stereotype was accurate, every kid in every generation has hated losing! There’s nothing special about Millenials in that regard. However, it takes quite a conceited “I worked hard for this” parent to think that their kid is so special that they deserve a trophy despite losing. To shout and yell at the umpires. To write angry letters (and emails, if you had dial-up yet) to the league administrators.

But as harsh as that may seem, I’m not trying to single out our parents for doing everything wrong. As we’ve already discussed, every generation has its own weaknesses, many born of the weaknesses of the previous generation. Priorities shift and concerns change with technology, art, and industry. I can only hope that the economic, cultural, and psychological shock and turbulence experienced by my generation as we witness the power and speed of social media, artificial intelligence, climate change, and mass market global production will show the next generation how very far there is still to go. And I wonder—with hope fringed by fear—what they might be inheriting from us.

3 thoughts on “The Participation Trophy Generation

  1. Great post. This is an on-going conversation I have with my Boomer coworkers/boss/parents. I don’t know if I ever get anywhere.

    One of the sticking points I have in such conversations is when the Boomers ask, “Why doesn’t [struggling Millennial] take that job at [fast food place]? They’re just entitled and think they’re too good for it. Why, when I was…”

    I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, the proverbial stick and the carrot of life was “You have to go to college so you don’t wind up flipping burgers!” “Flipping burgers” was code for failing at life. That was the narrative we were weaned on. Yet, now indignant Boomers ask why Millennials shy away from such work (ignoring the practical concerns that such a job doesn’t cover overhead)?

    You touched on this in your blog (i.e. trusting the adults that if x, then y, but finding out that y does not necessarily follow from x), and that gets to the college side of it. It’s as though the whole generation has amnesia about what they told us, and it’s maddening.

    B: Why did you go to college if you couldn’t afford it?
    M: Because we were literally told our whole lives that going to college would guarantee a good, non-failure life, and that we had to get it no matter what.
    B: But why did you take such a stupid, useless major?
    M: Because you literally told us the major didn’t matter to our employability, just that we had a degree.
    B: Why didn’t you go to technical school where the good-paying, needed jobs are?
    M: Because, time and time again, in so many ways, you disparaged tradespeople and positioned trade school a mark of lesser achievement; something to be ashamed of.


    1. “M: Because, time and time again, in so many ways, you disparaged tradespeople and positioned trade school a mark of lesser achievement; something to be ashamed of.”

      Exactly! However, in all fairness, a lot of the tech trade schools weren’t an option for them (most of the tech didn’t exist, much less the economy to support it), so they don’t even consider the real opportunities afforded by a 2-year tech degree and a handful of certificates.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True. But there was some tech then that exists now (auto, metal, HVAC, carpentry, plumbing, etc.) and that was either inaccessible or disparaged.

        For example, in my high school experience, there was literally no option to take any trade-related classes. We had no shop classes. The only way you got classes in trade word was if you went to Raincross; i.e. the remedial school where the drop-outs, teen-mothers, juvenile offenders, and other “failures” had to go. The local community college offered some classes that high schoolers theoretically could take, but they were practically inaccessible because they were always full and preference was (appropriately) given to the college students.


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