A general manager of the Muffin Break food chain gave an interview that went viral and bemused, annoyed and angered a generation of workers.
Employer branding isn’t just your social media presence, and it’s not limited to having a sharp career page. It’s something that’s built, that changes, and that can be ruined. And if you’re a leader of the company it’s at stake each time you step up to the microphone, as Muffin Break general manager Natalie Brennan has discovered.
If you were to sum up her comments, they expressed a familiar point of view. The younger generation (“millennials”) have an entitlement mentality, are overly sensitive, and are unwilling to work hard.
Drawing particular ire was her disappointment that more young people don’t take on unpaid internships. “There’s just nobody walking in my door asking for an internship, work experience or unpaid work, nobody,” Brennan told the News Corp publication.
Some have argued she was taken out of context, and that she was making a limited point about a certain kind of work. And there’s some truth to that. She is talking about unpaid internships for corporate staff and not customer-facing staff, as some have assumed. And certainly the framing of the article is designed to make her point of view as brash as possible (though that’s the risk you take when speaking to journalists).
But, despite her apology, if you add up her quotes it’s clear she holds a very critical view of people in their twenties.
- “I’m generalising, but it definitely feels like this generation of 20-somethings has to be rewarded even if it’s the most mundane, boring thing, they want to be rewarded for doing their job constantly”
- “[There is] this unreal view that you’re going to come into a company and be the general manager or CEO in five years”
- “There’s definitely that inflated view of their self-importance because they have X amount of Instagram followers or this many likes. That’s dangerous.”
High risk, no reward
There’s something funny about her interview, in that she is condemning a whole generation for being self-absorbed and naive while demonstrating both those qualities.
This is a franchise that has been accused of telling franchisees to steal workers’ wages, and had franchisees fall afoul of the Fair Work Ombudsman. It has known bad press. Given that, what did Brennan think would be the outcome of her interview? Young people lining up to become unpaid interns because they’ve been shamed by a woman they’ve never heard of? Or did she simply want applause from those who share her views? If the latter, did she foresee an upside that would make the risk worthwhile?
Her words show a lack of judgement that would be embarrassing even for a millennial. Worse still, her diagnosis of young people was hopelessly dull. It’s based on anecdotal information (young people at her company), it doesn’t bother to look for alternative explanations, and indulges in generational myths – the silliest kind of ageism.
It’s been pointed out by others, but her failure to understand how social media works has led to a painful social media lesson. Her interview will no doubt have a negative impact on her company’s brand and recruitment. Her HR team must be saying to each other, “If she thinks we had a problem recruiting younger people before…”
An ancient tradition
Older people believing that the younger generation act with a unique, never before seen sense of entitlement is a tradition with thousands of years of history. Which is to say, it is one of the least original thoughts in all of recorded time.
A 2017 BBC article did a fine job of comparing modern complaints with their predecessors. You can even make a game out of it, for example, when do you think was this said?
“What really distinguishes this generation from those before it is that it’s the first generation in American history to live so well and complain so bitterly about it.”
If you guessed 1993, you nailed it.
The language of this next one makes it obvious it’s not recent, but can you name the generation that’s being decried?
“We defy anyone who goes about with his eyes open to deny that there is, as never before, an attitude on the part of young folk which is best described as grossly thoughtless, rude, and utterly selfish.”
That’s from 1925, and it’s talking about a generation that would serve in huge numbers in World War Two.
Thinking in stereotypes
It’s quite possible the young people Brennan knows tend towards selfishishness about their jobs. But going from the specific (“I know 15 selfish young people”) to something more sweeping (“this entire generation is uniquely selfish”) is a dangerous cognitive leap.
To paraphrase one group of academics, thinking in stereotypes means overreacting to information that confirms a stereotype, and underreaction to information that contradicts it. So why do we do it? The same academics subscribe to the theory that stereotypes are a mental shortcut or “intuitive generalizations that individuals routinely use in their everyday life, and entail savings on cognitive resources”.
Thinking in stereotypes makes sense as a survival instinct. If you see a big cat in a jungle, the safer option is to assume it’s dangerous. But it makes no sense when you have time to avoid categorisation (so pretty much always).
Muffin Break, like a lot of food franchises, relies on younger workers to staff its stores. And every company needs Millennials because over a third of employed Australians are aged 20-35. If even a small percentage of this cohort refuse to apply for jobs at the company – because they found the comments personally disagreeable or just because their friends would laugh – that’s a blow. One that was entirely avoidable.