Expecting Something For Nothing: How the Participation Trophy Symbolizes The Millennial Stereotype

By: David A. Aguirre

Throughout the history of civilized culture, the most efficient method for categorizing diverse groups of people has consistently been the utilization of labels. Slapping specific members of society with a label eliminates many potentially problematic sociological and communicative obstacles. A sufficient labeling system provides a series of references that are universally understood and accepted amongst all the groups involved. Unfortunately when using labels to characterize others, we tend to generate stereotypes within these labeled groups. No matter how accurately they might portray a group of people, stereotypes by definition are generalizations and assumptions at best. Some stereotypes can definitively expose some accurate character traits among a portion of individuals within a group while other stereotypes don’t describe even a small section of a group yet continue to dwell within our culture to appallingly defame and discriminate that group.

When regarding the millennial generation (which I belong), society has almost unanimously branded them with some unfavorable stereotypes that admittedly, I agree with to a certain extent. One of the most popular millennial stereotypes involves their unreasonable expectation of acquiring quick wealth without putting forth hard work.    

A significant portion of millennials possess a strong sense of self entitlement.  

Being 100% guilty of this stereotype years ago, this does apply to more than a few millennials and it’s easy to understand how. Truthfully speaking, my generation has never experienced any global threatening hardships that previous generations suffered through. American millennials have never:

  • Fought in a world war
  • Dealt with a deadly plague
  • Needed to escape a tyrannical government
  • Needed elementary schools to teach gas mask protocol for nuclear war preparation

Despite living through a number of horrifically tragic events such as 9/11 or school shootings, millennials have yet to encounter the types of catastrophes that have pushed older generations to the brink worldwide chaos. As a whole, no other generation of human beings have benefited more from the hard work and sacrifices of their elders like the millennial generation has. Despite all the political drama that continues to pollute our way of life today, we live during a fascinating time period in history bearing witness to unprecedented medical and technological advancements.

When a thriving free country like the United States goes through a long stretch of peace and prosperity, the fearful anxieties of war, deadly illnesses, and evil governments slowly subside with the passing of time. Having said that, it’s easy to see a shift in American family culture the past 70 years. During the 1940’s-1950’s, family values and patriotism enriched the moral fiber of our society primarily because that generation disregarded racial, political, and sociocultural differences to unite against the largest global threat ever in Nazi Germany. At some point between then and now, a cultural mutation swept across America that introduced a notion in which every person special and every child is a winner no matter what. In theory this concept is beautiful however it completely contradicts the nature of the real world. Unfortunately for some millennials, this “everyone’s a winner” philosophy has evolved into a preconceived sense of entitlement in which they believe success and wealth is owed to them rather than earned.         

Nothing symbolizes the “everyone's a winner” ideology more than the participation trophy. Call me old school, but receiving awards and trophies should only apply to those achieve goals through extra practice and hard work. As wonderful as it sounds for every child to take home a trophy at the end of the year party, this undoubtedly conveys a message which devalues the incentive to work hard. Instilling a strong work ethic within a child can never start too young. A solid work ethic requires continuous reinforcement throughout childhood and consistent maintenance as adults. The sooner children understand the concept that hard work equals success, the better. 

Going back to millennials, we mentioned their most popular stereotype was expecting something for nothing. Well go figure, the debut of the participation trophy came in the late 1980’s to early 1990’s which happens to directly coincide with the birth of the millennial generation. Is it a coincidence that the most self-entitled generation of Americans ever were the first beneficiaries of the participation trophy? If a generation of children grow within a society that hands out special rewards to everyone no matter what, it makes perfect sense that some of these kids become self-entitled as adults. Children don’t need to take home a trophy to feel special. The love and support of friends and family light up a child’s life much brighter than an oversized paperweight can.

I’m not sure exactly which youth sports team initiated the participation trophy movement, but I’m almost certain that team either lost the championship the year before or lost every game. The underlying reason why the majority of society would rather hand out trophies to everyone is simply because that guarantees no child feels left out or sad. That philosophy is fine up to a certain age however, a transition must occur where a trophy symbolizes the rewards of hard work. If a child feels sad if they don’t get one, channel that sadness into motivation and worker harder in the off season. Unfortunately for some millennials who were given a trophies all their lives, the game of life doesn’t hand out anything for just participating.