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Are Millennials Ethical People?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Millennial Generation

From time to time an ethics student of mine writes an excellent blog for the course and I post it online. Today’s comes from Caroline Lancaster. It presents a view of the ethical values of Millennials that I don’t often see in writings.

The Millennial generation has been defined as entitled, impatient, and results oriented. These characteristics, combined with the prominent world of technology and social media, have made previous generations ask if this is simply a “results oriented” generation, or a generation lacking basic ethical standards? Numbering roughly 77 million, Millennials make up about one fourth of the U.S. population and account for $200 billion of annual buying power in the country.

Economists, marketers, and employers are fascinated with this generation, for it represents a pivotal point in generational history as Millennials will soon makeup the majority of the U.S. workforce. Millennials are the most educated generation to date, and have grown up in a world far different from that of their parents. The constant distractions of technology and social media play a large role in the everyday life of a Millennial. This complex and advanced world they have grown up in has affected their ability to judge routine activities as matters involving ethical decisions, resulting in a generation that largely ignores ethical standards once commonplace in earlier generations.

A routine moral failure that is widespread among the Millennial generation is theft. With the advent of technology, the lines of ownership and theft have significantly blurred. Music, files, movies, and anything transmitted over the Internet have the ability to be shared with a friend. Illegal downloading and sharing of files has already ruined the profitability of the music industry, and now the television and movie industries are experiencing the same problem.

Illegal streaming or “pirating” video content is so common for the Millennials that it is considered abnormal if you adhere to video content distribution laws and pay to rent an online movie or buy a song. Illegal downloading and pirating of media content is in fact a crime, but the digital age of collaboration, cheating, and sharing information or work has created an environment where it is both easy to steal and hard to get caught. Music sharing is an even bigger problem among the Millennial generation than previous generations.

It has always been questionable whether sharing files is truly considered stealing, but nowadays one doesn’t even need a friend with ownership to music to be able to download it. Millennials have the ability to bypass paying the ninety-nine cents to own the rights to download a song on iTunes and can instead illegally downloading it through YouTube or other such ‘torrenting’ sights. Illegal downloading violates almost every ethical standard including honesty, integrity, respect and responsibility.

An ethical person should respect the hard work of the artist they are enjoying; the responsibility to comply with copyright laws; and refrain from illegal downloading. The ugly truth is that Millennial minds don’t even register that illegal downloading is an ethical dilemma. This theft has become so normalized; the fact that it is stealing money from an artist has simply become an afterthought that most choose to ignore.

A second common example of theft that has run amok with Millennials is the improper use of company time. Millennials grew up in the age of technology where they are always tuned in to social media outlets. This need to be “tuned-in” affects work life the most.

Employers continually report that their new Millennial employees have a difficult understanding of when it is appropriate to use social media in the workday. The fact of the matter is that checking your Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter takes time away from completing work. Most Millennials don’t recognize that checking social media at work is stealing time and therefore money from their employer.

The problem is that this relatively minor lapse in ethical reasoning can easily lead to bigger instances of theft. In June, the Ethics Resource Center published a new study that concluded that America’s youngest workers (Millennials) are almost twice as likely as Baby Boomers to buy personal items with a company credit card, almost three times as likely to blog or tweet something negative about their company, and about two and a half as likely to take company software home for their own use. If this improper workplace conduct is not curtailed, Millennials could soon find it easier and easier to justify more serious instances of lying and theft.

Trustworthiness is the forefront of employers concerns when looking at the pool of Millennials to hire. According to the 2014 findings of an annual travel survey conducted by the research company SpringHill Suites, more than 60% of Americans aged 18 to 34 have made an excuse to take an impromptu vacation day. Lying once in order to get a day off may not have dire consequences to your employer, but it fundamentally violates the ethical principles of honesty and integrity. If we cannot trust employees to honestly use sick days for their intended use, then the trust among coworkers will quickly go downhill.

A recent survey by the Pew Trust found that this group of 18 to 33 year-olds “has emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust." In fields with high fraud potential such as auditing and stock trading, trust is vital in ensuring the financial markets continue to operate. If employers and employees equally cannot place trust in one another, the future of an ethical society is looking grim and we can expect even more fraud in the future.

Some online publications state the redeeming quality of the Millennial generation is that they want to work for an environmentally and ethically sound company. Many argue that this finding, along with the fact that Millennials would rather have a job where they are contributing to the good of society rather than just making money, will make for an interesting future in business going forward. However, the desire to work for an ethically sound company or have a positive impact on society does not mean that Millennials are ethical people. These desires simply reflect self-interests rather than the actual ability to reason and act ethically.

Some argue it is not Millennials’ fault that they are not as ethical as previous generations. The majority of ethical lapses occur in instances that simply did not exist for previous generations. However, this fact should not be used as an excuse to rationalize ethical standards. Societal ethics has always evolved and ethical people stick to their core values in such instances; they do not allow the circumstances to alter what they believe in deep down to their core.

Blog by Caroline Lancaster and posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 10, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: Ms. Lancaster is a student at Cal Poly.