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Are millennials cut out for this job market?

By Ruben Navarrette, Jr., CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette says the millennial generation may need to reconcile to a tough job market
  • He says the cohort has been raised by boomers, coddled, educated and with high self-esteem
  • But do those traits translate into good employees? He says employers often not impressed
  • Navarrette: In a down job market, millennials need to adjust expectations, get real
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

San Diego (CNN) -- I hate to say it, but Americans might just need to "reboot" the millennial generation. This is the cohort of 50 million people now between 18 and 30, the children of baby boomers or older members of generation X. And as researchers and other experts have trained their attention on them, a profile has emerged: Speaking broadly, millennials are tech-savvy, highly educated and have incredibly high self-esteem even if they haven't done much to deserve it. (To be sure, not every millennial is college educated and exhibits all these traits; we're speaking broadly.)

In a way, those millennials who fit the profile have set themselves up to be casualties of the job downturn. In a competitive global economy, which is not interested in catering to anyone's sense of self-worth, these young people may learn the hard way that their needs and expectations don't match reality and that jobs are hard to come by.

My favorite expert on millennials is Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. She has spent more than a dozen years examining differences among generations. Her research includes comparing studies on the self-esteem of more than 60,000 college students across the country from 1968 to 1994. In 2006, she wrote a book, "Generation Me," based on her study of thousands of people in this age group, including hundreds of her own students.

As Twenge points out, millennials didn't get this way by accident. They were raised in a world where grownups did everything possible to shield them from adversity and disappointment. Everyone got a trophy just for showing up; even red marker pens were banned from some schools because the color was considered too harsh and judgmental.

The catch: Having been told their whole lives that they were "special" and destined for greatness, she says, millennials are unequipped for setbacks. They feel entitled to the best of everything. And they want it now, since they were raised in a fast-food, drive-thru, high-speed Internet culture that believes waiting is for suckers.

Bosses listening to millennial workers

Polls show their politics are fluid and unpredictable. They worry about the national debt, and they think government should cut spending rather than stick them with the bill. But they also care about the environment and human rights, and they are generally more accepting of gay marriage and multiculturalism than older Americans. They often don't vote, and when they do, if they back the wrong candidate, they are easily disillusioned and unforgiving.

They can be hard to reach. They are free with their opinions, and don't take orders, criticism or direction well. When a college professor gives them a "C" on a paper, they might just shrug it off and say: "Well, that's your opinion."

Meanwhile, they tend to worship fame more than fortune, and put family and friends before work and career. They don't have much employment experience, in fact, but they do a lot of volunteer work.

Perhaps because they don't get much practice working for bosses, millennials can often be no picnic to manage on the job. Their unemployment rate is about 14%, compared with the national rate of 9.2%. Another 23% of young people are not even looking for a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Many millennials have been known to hold out for the perfect job at the perfect company with the perfect salary and a clear path to the vice presidency, even if it means crashing with mom and dad well into their 20s. The Pew Research Center found that in 2008, when the recession began, the percentage of the population that lived in households where at least two generations were present inched upward to 16%. In better economic times, that figure might be as low as 12%.

Millennials are in no rush to start the rat race, because they work to live and not the other way around. They saw their parents get laid off or trudge to jobs they hated. They're determined to be different.

Oh, and when they do land their dream job, they have some pretty tough requirements in terms of what they want from the experience, such as career advancement. With millennials, you didn't do them any favors by offering them a job; they think they did you a favor by taking it.

Some of these findings made their way into a series of recent articles on CNN.com, which reported, in part, that millennials want their jobs to be fun and flexible, and that many companies are obliging in order to attract younger workers.

This is exactly the wrong response. The last thing that millennials need is more accommodation, more people bending rules to make them happy. That's how they were raised, with everyone catering to their every whim, starting with their parents.

Most of what I know about millennials, I learned from my readers. Whenever I write about this topic, I'm flooded with stories that back up the research. There was the chef who reported that young workers in his kitchen give him strange looks when he asks them "to do something like wash both the inside and outside of a pot or pan or to merely complete a job the best they can." They're more apt to say: "That's not my job!"

Or the contractor, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, who said he had tried "sometimes desperately, to hire only native-born young men," and to pay them well -- $12 an hour for workers with limited or no skills and as much as $35 an hour for those with more skills. However, he said, native-born workers tended to demand top wages even when they lacked skills, complained about the pace of jobs and missed work.

The problem isn't that we've been too hard on millennials all these years, but rather too easy. Even with high unemployment, there are still employers who need workers. And many of the more physically demanding jobs -- construction, landscaping, farm work -- tend to need younger workers. The trouble is that millennials, with other interests and priorities, are just not that interested. So it shouldn't be surprising if, in the years to come, many employers aren't interested in them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.