The Entitlement Slayers

D. A. Hayden and Michael Wilder say they have the cure for the inflated self-regard and general cluelessness today’s young workers bring to the business world. A word to parents and prospective clients: This brand of advice isn’t for the meek.

When Maeve, a well-groomed goldendoodle, ushers me into the Back Bay offices of D. A. Hayden and Michael Wilder, I don’t recognize them as the hardened veterans of the corporate world that they advertise themselves to be. Hayden favors pearls and headbands and looks every inch the avid equestrienne she is; Wilder, whose passion for cigars is wearing on his health, appears simultaneously rumpled and professional, like a rich, eccentric uncle. I relax instantly.

Bad idea.

I’m here for the first of several days of career consultation, an abridged version of the typical $3,250, eight-session program the pair offers. We begin slowly, with a short mock interview. It’s the part I’ve been looking forward to—I always enjoy a chance to ramble on about myself. “So,” Wilder says, “tell me a little bit about Julia.”

I smile and lean back in my chair. “I grew up in Washington, DC,” I start, taking a moment to sigh expansively. Then college at Harvard. Graduating a few years ago, deciding to be a writer. I tell him about the various newspaper jobs I’ve held down since, and my recent move from Florida to Boston, where I’ve spent the past months wandering somewhat aimlessly in search of employment. Within 10 minutes, I’ve covered most of my fascinating biographical details and begin to trail off uncertainly.

Wilder, who started his firm because he “loves working with young people,” announces I’ve scored a B-minus. “You talk too much,” he says. “It was hard for me to figure out what the hell you were saying. And your eye contact is funny—you shake hands and then you look at your feet. It’s sort of a geisha introduction.”

“You’re a writer?” asks Hayden. “You’re one of the worst verbal editors I’ve ever heard! The way you sit, the way you slap your thigh—you sound like a bullshitter. But the biggest thing is the verbal diarrhea. If I were actually interviewing you, I would have been exhausted.” She gives me a C.

Career counseling, obviously, is not new, but the niche that Hayden and Wilder specialize in is: Their eponymous Boston-based firm avoids the established market of middle-aged customers to focus exclusively on entry-level job coaching for new college grads. It seems like an odd line of work for two former Arnold Worldwide execs, but Hayden and Wilder say the transition was a natural. In her former incarnation as president of the ad firm’s public relations division, Hayden prepped CEOs and sports stars for interviews. Both she and Wilder, once an executive vice president at Arnold, spent a lot of time meeting with college grads applying for their first real jobs. Over and over, the two were struck by how unpolished, unprofessional, and unprepared they were. These kids were desperate for a branding makeover. And so a business was born.

Now, less than two years later, that business is booming. Since Hayden-Wilder’s launch in fall 2005, hundreds of graduates (as well as the occasional twenty- or thirtysomething) have invested in the program. The firm all but guarantees they will land a job within four to six weeks of finishing the course, and so far has delivered, with about two-thirds of its former clients currently employed. (Many of the rest are still in school.) The fact that the job market for prospective customers has lately started to look better—across the board, employers expect to hire 19 percent more new college graduates this year than they did last year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers—has hardly checked Hayden-Wilder’s growth.

For what the firm charges, I expect bells and whistles—an IQ test, maybe a polygraph—but when I show up, tattered résumé in hand, I find that a camcorder is the most elaborate technology in the tiny office. Absolving sheltered, naive young adults of ego and romantic notions, it turns out, is a relatively stripped-down endeavor.

“They point out all your flaws,” says Chris Gleysteen, who studied government at Harvard and supplemented his job search with Hayden-Wilder’s program before graduating this spring. A budding politico whose parents know Hayden through the horse circuit, Gleysteen comes off blasé, unshakable; Hayden and Wilder said he talked too much and had a bad handshake. Another client, a bubbly Wellesley grad with degrees in history and Spanish, sheepishly rattles off her list of Hayden-Wilder-identified sins. “I talk really, really fast,” she says. “I do a kind of tilt to my head. I circle around the point, but never get to it.”

This is a generation, Hayden says, “who have heard, from the moment they came out of the womb, that they are great and can do whatever they want. These kids have been helped, coddled, nurtured, told that they can do no wrong. We give them a dose of reality.”

In my career advising session, which consists of two mock interviews, hours of getting-to-know-you chats, lectures about different job-getting strategies, and an insane amount of homework, I am informed that if I want to make a living, I should ditch the dreams of that New York Times gig and get into technical and corporate writing. When I protest that journalism is my “life’s work,” they flat-out snort.

“I don’t think that people will care,” Hayden says. “Really, what you want to do is sort of academic. It’s what people will pay you to do.”

The perception that my generation is less suited to the rigors of the workplace than any that has come before it is widespread. In 2005, a Florida State University survey found that 55 percent of employees thought their young colleagues “act as if they are more deserving than others at work.” Also that year, the Associated Press reported that modern college grads have “shockingly high expectations for salary, job flexibility, and duties, but little willingness to take on grunt work or remain loyal to a company,” and, through the same story, helped popularize a new phrase. Overnight, the defining characteristic of the so-called Entitlement Generation—my generation—became the vague impression that somebody owes us something. A recent Fortune cover story described us as “all nonchalance and expectation,” and “the most high-maintenance work force in the history of the world.”

Hayden and Wilder use reports like those as the basis for their business model. The lead statistic on the firm’s website is one the pair gathered from conversations with HR professionals, who cite that “85 percent of entry-level candidates are poorly prepared for the job search process.” Here, “poorly prepared” doesn’t mean dumb or lazy or inadequately educated so much as totally and completely out of touch with the world of work. Hayden and Wilder back this up with anecdotes about the badly behaved Entitleds they encountered during their agency days. Hayden was mystified by an applicant who snuck a baguette into the interview and hid it under the table, occasionally breaking off pieces to nibble. Another looked like a good candidate until she dropped her portfolio, spilling papers all over the floor. She froze, then simply turned and left the building. Droves of kids wore flip-flops to interviews.

Recently, Hayden and Wilder began shopping a book with the working title Getting Real. “It’s a commentary about this generation and their sense of unreality,” Wilder explains. As for what causes that disconnect, the duo’s favorite culprit is a new style of parenting that rewards kids for adequate, rather than exemplar
y, behavior. Moms and dads are no longer instilling in their children the notion that the “real world” requires sacrifice and hard work, often without rewards. In a nutshell, we kids are obscenely spoiled.

It’s a theory that jibes with what many experts believe. “There’s a sense that these kids don’t have the maturity of those ahead of them,” says Dan King, a founder of Boston-based Career Planning and Management. They also belong to a generation that has never known failure. Says Folly Patterson, an associate director at Wellesley’s Center for Work and Service, “We’re struggling with how to teach them to handle disappointment.”

Whatever the cause, Hayden and Wilder aim to effectively reprogram members of this super-generation. Today’s graduates have been raised to believe that extreme individuality is the way to get noticed; now that they’re out making a living, they need to learn how to deal with a corporate culture that requires the ability to fit in. Maybe the kid who brought the baguette to the interview thought he was being quirky, memorable. But quirky, say Hayden and Wilder, doesn’t pay the bills.

My Hayden-Wilder boot camp made it clear that I’ve certainly got some entitled brat in me. The criticism stung for days. (I slap my thigh?) Still, all this twentysomething-bashing seems misplaced to me. Every generation is more coddled than the one before. Isn’t that the whole point of the American Dream? Is the current rising army of spoiled punks in interview suits really that different from, say, the baby boomers? That generation didn’t exactly meld seamlessly with the corporate world that awaited them, either. Instead, they went off and started a cultural revolution.

John Noble, who’s watched nearly three decades of students come through Harvard, Duke, and now Williams, where he serves as director of career counseling, agrees. “There are always students who feel entitled to certain outcomes whether or not they deserve it,” he says. At the same time, he adds, “With college admissions and test preparation, there’s a culture of guaranteeing success. People aren’t as willing to accept their fate. Instead, you buy your way into it.”

That’s what Fred Dabney did. His daughter Caroline, a Hamilton grad, took the course in 2004 after searching for a job for months. “If you’re aiming for the moon, you need to be well versed in how to go about it,” Dabney says. These days, “everybody’s expected to be twice as good as they used to be. What Hayden and Wilder teach is a skill that’s not just useful for getting a job. It’s an important life skill. You can’t get that kind of training for free.”

Certainly, Hayden and Wilder have no illusions about what they’re selling. (Nor are they above using scare tactics to sell it: “It’s harder to get a career-building first job than it is to get into an Ivy League college,” warns their website.) And they’re banking on parents to shell out whatever it takes in order to guarantee their child soaks up as much career success as money can buy. “Wealth has always bought privilege,” Wilder says. “Now there’s more money around than ever before.”

Of course, the best way to show concerned parents that they’re getting their money’s worth is to come down hard, to make the kids cry. This is where part of Hayden and Wilder’s genius lies. Once you get past the ego-crushing observations about your bad shoes and bad posture, though, the pair doesn’t give you much that your average college career office can’t provide for free.

“The basics of career counseling are universal,” says Wellesley’s Patterson. There are three steps to any job search, she says: self-exploration, career exploration, and self-presentation. Hayden and Wilder stick pretty close to those steps, though they call them “Discovery and Distillation,” “Prospecting and Promotion,” and “Packaging the Promise.”

Sitting between them as they tossed ideas back and forth about my career, I felt like a generic box of cereal, waiting for a brand. When they were done, I had a statement on my résumé that identifies me as an experienced writer who wants “a writing position at a medical or life sciences corporation/institution”—about as unromantic as it gets. Still, my overhauled résumé looked amazing, so I took it with a smile and vowed to apply for a few pharmaceutical jobs, just to see what would happen. As soon as I left Hayden-Wilder’s office, though, that practical, responsible, so-very-adult plan began to fade from memory. The old soundtrack came back, as pompous and naive as ever. I’ve made it this far without selling out to some soulless corporate 9-to-5. Maybe I’ll just keep freelancing and aiming for the stars until the world recognizes how much I’m worth.

I wish I could tell you that my privileged, entitled self got properly smacked around. A good moralistic tale about how my money ran out and I had to abandon all my dreams of bigshot journalistic success in order to make a living. But even without Hayden and Wilder’s tricks, I soon got a full-time job at an alternative newspaper. Dogs roam freely in the office and everybody—all of us members of the Entitlement Generation—wears jeans. I didn’t even interview for the position, but instead took advantage of a connection I had made three years earlier, while my family was supporting what was then a near-penniless writer’s lifestyle. (Of course, I like to think it was really my blinding talent and boundless charm that got me in the door—not the unpaid internship I could take because my folks paid for my health insurance.)

Ultimately, what Hayden and Wilder do best is package the idea that we need their services. And, okay, maybe we do—for reasons other than the simple fact that more and more of our parents are able and willing to pay for them. My new alt-weekly gig may not be the dream job of the typical Hayden-Wilder client, but it suits me well, and maybe I needed some mortifying camcorder footage to discover that. I may still be unprepared and ill mannered and thoroughly unfit for the corporate world, but at least now I don’t have any doubts about it.