I work at the perfume counter of a major department store, a job I’ve held for almost 20 years. I’m outgoing, personable, and enjoy meeting new people – all qualities which make me excellent at what I do, and valuable to my employer (they’ve told me as much on repeated occasions). I love what I do; I have no desire to move up in the company or manage, nor do I have any plans to leave.
In recent years though, I’ve noticed something peculiar. Our new hires seem increasingly unlikely (or unwilling) to show me the respect I feel I deserve. For instance, just the other day I was showing someone how to organize and track our inventory—a system I helped develop, by the way—and they basically questioned everything. I tried to explain that there are some very good reasons for why we do things the way we do, but they didn’t want to hear it. Their attitude was more: ‘That seems stupid. My way would be better…’ I find this very frustrating! What? Do they think I haven’t put any thought into my job all these years?? If I were in their shoes, I think I’d want to learn as much as I can from someone as experienced and good at their job as I am. Seems logical – at least if you want to be successful or get ahead in the company. Yet all I get is pushback. Is this a millennial thing? – Name withheld
Personally, I don’t believe what you’re noticing has anything to do with being a ‘millennial’.
People are people, in my experience – and that’s true no matter what you do, where you work, or in this case, when you were born. As a card-carrying member of Gen X, I certainly recall being similarly disparaged when I and my peers joined the workforce. In fact, Douglas Coupland (author of Generation X) would probably characterize present day criticism of millennials as a textbook example of clique maintenance, which he defines as:
‘[T]he need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster their own ego.’
There are, however, a couple of other factors that may account for the behavior you’re experiencing.
The first is what I’ll call ‘new person syndrome’. This is the tendency to feel a very real, and perhaps profound sense of insecurity upon starting any new job. For those first few months, we need a lot of help – and nobody likes being so dependent on others. Yet there we are, having to be told how to do everything.
Some people cope with this by questioning what they’re told. On some level, it makes you feel a little bit more in control. You’re no longer the ignorant child constantly in need of direction, but an equal engaged in thoughtful debate with a colleague. Annoying? Certainly. It also makes anyone who behaves this way seem to be an even bigger idiot than they already appear.
What also might be contributing is the ultimately misguided notion that the workplace is a fundamentally competitive environment. Coworkers aren’t collaborators with whom to work in pursuit of agreed upon organizational goals. Instead, they’re rivals to be bested in the ongoing contest for raises, promotions, and other rewards. So they push back, in hopes of distinguishing themselves. But as someone with your experience and savvy can undoubtedly appreciate, businesses do better when employees work together, as opposed to trying to outshine each other.
And then of course, some people just don’t like to be told what to do.
But there is one other explanation I’d like to offer for the treatment you’ve been receiving. I’ll call it ‘The Reverse Peter Principle’ as a tribute to the educator who identified the organizational principle which still bears his name.
Back in the 1960s, Laurence Peter cheekily posited that in a hierarchy, everybody rises to the level of their incompetence. The reasoning is simple: Whenever someone masters a particular role, they’re typically promoted – and this continues until they find themselves in a position in which they prove incapable of executing whatever responsibilities have been assigned to them. Only then does the cycle stop. He called this ‘The Peter Principle’.
While amusing, there is of course little truth to this. In fact, we might look to your own circumstance as proof.
You’re good at what you do—indeed, your employer has told you as much—and furthermore are happy, and plan to remain in this role for the foreseeable future. You’ve settled into your own personal ‘level of excellence’, in other words.
Your bright young hires, however, may see things through Mr. Peter’s eyes. The fact that you’ve remained in your current role for so long suggests to them that you must be lacking in some way, and therefore topped out career-wise. They’re misinterpreting your satisfaction as stagnation—owing to your presumed incompetence—and therefore aren’t actually worth listening to.
That’s too bad for them.
Obviously you have the skills and expertise from which these new hires would benefit, if only they would listen. Again, the loss is theirs. I would only advise you to be patient, and hold your tongue as firmly as you hold your ground. Perhaps these young upstarts will come around eventually.
In the meantime, rest assured that even if they don’t, you’ll still have the job you love—and excel at—long after they’re gone.
 Generation X by Douglas Copeland. 1991. (New York: St Martin’s Press), p. 21.
 The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. 2020. (London: Profile Books Ltd.), p. 15. (Originally published in 1969.)