Millennials: The Trophy Generation

I’ve heard and read so many complaints about Millennials (or Gen Yers) being the “trophy generation,” meaning that anyone born in or after 1981 grew up receiving participation trophies just for showing up. If we believe the consensus, everyone currently aged 37 or younger has a houseful of trophies for no reason at all, and that trophy collection has rendered us unfit for work.

Millennials Trophy Generation

The Truth About Millennials and Participation Trophies

I won’t deny it — I received a couple of participation trophies. But to my recollection, I was about 5 or 6 when I received them for being on a mini kicks soccer team. I can’t recall another time when I received a trophy simply for participating in an event. But that’s beside the point — receiving participation trophies does not make you unfit for work, and by using the phrase “trophy generation” or “participation trophy generation” as a way to discredit a whole generation of our workforce only contributes to negative discourse, and does nothing to actually address the real issues that we face around talent management and development.

Correcting the Metaphor

As a language nerd, I often find myself reflecting on how our word choices can simultaneously reflect and shape our beliefs. By using the term “trophy” as a metaphor for entitlement, people who view the Millennial work ethic unfavorably will maintain and/or increase their negative feelings about the Gen Y’s work readiness.

The metaphor we should be using instead is “trophy” as feedback. If we look at it from that perspective, then I would say that undoubtedly the Millennials are the trophy generation. Millennials crave feedback and need guidance on how to succeed in the current professional landscape. They’re facing an uncertain economic future and need all the support they can get to gain the experience, knowledge, and skills that the current agile business model requires.

If you are an employer and you find yourself reacting to behaviors that might reflect entitlement, take that opportunity to provide honest, clear, and concrete feedback to your employee(s) so they can grow from the experience. Instead of thinking of Millennials as expecting special treatment they don’t deserve, think of them as expecting treatment that everyone deserves: and that includes respect and consistent feedback.