Not Everyone Got A Trophy

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that lines used.

“Not everybody wins a trophy.”

That patronizing line gets spat from the lips of sneering pundits on the news. It makes its appearance in venomous opinion columns in the local papers and it graces cover of national magazines.

“Not everybody wins a trophy.”

“Some people are losers.”

“This is what happens when you give kids awards for just participating.”

To hear some folks talk, the sum total of this country’s ills can be traced back to the coddling of America’s youth- Generation Y in particular. And certainly there’s no shortage of criticism launched in the Millennials’ direction.


This is the generation of entitlement, the generation of immediate gratification, the generation of the two-second attention span, the “me” generation. And all stemming from the baseless sense of accomplishment and self-esteem given out with every participation award.

Or does it?

The idea that kids are being handed award after meaningless award is rampant- so much so it seems to have gone unchallenged. Yours truly took to the internet to find out what the statistics were on the number of participation awards given out, and my efforts were utterly fruitless. Now there were plenty of polls on public opinion of participation awards, but neither my old friend Google Scholar nor the internet at large had anything to offer in the way of hard numbers.

And that should concern us.

Ask yourself- just for a moment- how many participation ribbons or trophies you’ve actually seen anyone receive. Not how many you suspect might be out there. Not how many schools or competitions have that “mentality”.

How many have you actually seen with your own eyes?

I’m guessing the number of actual occurrences might not quite be so high.

Then why the outrage?

Millennials are constantly painted as greedy, lazy, thin-skinned egotists as a result of a kind of upbringing for which little to no hard data exists. One might just as easily blame the decline of glam rock or UFO sightings for the supposed ills of Generation Y.

Yet the accusations persist.

ESPN writer Roxanne Jones has cited that she refuses to sign her children up for sports where score isn’t kept. News anchor Jim Vance has blasted participation awards as “child abuse”. The Washington Post‘s Aaron Blake has suggested that young adults, simply by virtue of citing mild favor of participation awards, have “an entitlement issue”.

And while the numbers aren’t there, perhaps we might be enticed by the logic of it all.

As children, Millennials received unconditional adulation and praise, epitomized by the practice of giving every kid an award, regardless of their performance in whatever sport or competition.

(Again, there’s absolutely no evidence to back this up, but let’s roll with it for the sake of the argument.)

It is subsequently argued that, given this false sense of accomplishment, Millennials have grown up to be narcissists, expecting to be handed well-paying jobs, free healthcare, cheap housing, and so on.

That all of these things should be elements that conservatives have traditionally opposed probably should raise some eyebrows, but liberals have not shied away from these criticisms either.

Of course, the problems with that should be evident.

In spite of my doubts about the number of my peers who have actually received participation trophies, I know that I, myself, have.


A little green ribbon. Unceremoniously passed out to me after my model car made a painful showing in some little pinewood derby. The ribbon hung on my bedpost for a week or two before finding its away into a drawer where it was promptly forgotten for the next decade.

And against all odds- against this incessant propaganda- I’d like to think I’ve turned out OK.

I struggled a bit after college, to be sure, but I swiftly found myself working and in an apartment (if that’s what we want to call that unholy roach hole). Over the past three years, I’ve kept not only my day job but have done freelancing on the side (because I’m lazy). In spite of opportunities to make more money elsewhere, I stuck with my job for the opportunity to work with an underserved population (because I’m entitled). And throughout I have saved my money like a miser- there were even dark days when I simply did not eat anything (because, like all Millennials, I splurge on whatever new app will showcase my vanity).

And I’d generally say the same is true of my peers- most all of whom have taken low paying jobs, who often work two just to make ends meet, who greet those challenges with an stunning degree of patience and perseverance.

Perhaps I and my comrades weren’t given enough participation trophies for us to be corrupted by them. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Maybe- and bear with me here, because this might sound craaaaazy– just maybe getting a handful of colored fabric or a few plastic cups has ****-all bearing on what kind of person we grow into. Maybe there are a hundred, a hundred-thousand other factors that help shape our attitudes and character.

It’s times like these I remember sitting in front my computer and getting a message that a friend I had in the military had died. To this day I can’t fully grasp that I’m now years older than he was when it happened.

But perhaps I should.

After all, practically 50% of active duty service members are 25 and under– something Aaron Blake may have been mindful of before writing that “Perhaps we should start calling those under 25 years old the ‘participation trophy generation.'”

In all sincerity, Mr. Blake, go **** yourself with a chainsaw.

And perhaps we might entertain the things that make millennials so greedy. It wasn’t so long ago I myself heard an older gentleman sneer that young folks “want to get in at the Vice President level. Think they’re too good to start from the bottom.”

I can’t comment on what my peers think they are or aren’t “too good for”, but what I can speculate is what they can and can’t afford. With the average student loan sitting at about $35,000 the simple truth is that many of us can’t take a lower paying job. $8.25 ($7.25, depending where you live) is not enough to get by on for anyone, let alone with the added cost of mandatory health insurance and loan payments. From Sanders supporters to Occupy protesters, my generation has been labeled as “greedy”, rather than “desperate”. I wonder if the same sneering commenters would stand in a refugee camp and call the folks in line for free water a bunch of “moochers”.

But we don’t even need to get into that.

You see, if this generation was inundated with prizes (doubtful), and if this caused us to become such worthless scum (disputable), then it would still not be our ****ing fault.

Maybe I’m alone here, but I don’t recall eight year old “me” scooping my weekly allowance together and toddling off to the trophy store to buy false affirmation. Whatever unearned awards were bestowed on my generation came from the Boomers and Gen Xers now pouring out their derision on us. It’s nasty to call a homeless guy lazy. It’s demented to call him lazy for taking the spare change you gave him.

But y’know what?

I think I could bear all of it.

After the past five or six years of it, I think I can shrug off being called useless or overly-sensitive or shallow or vain. Coming from the generations responsible for this country’s longest war, massive environmental degradation, economic collapse, the rollback of civil rights- it’s not easy, but I can take it.

What I cannot take is when my own generation starts doing it. When my peers have so much of that venom flung at them that they start parroting the same baseless, spiteful slogans.

“Not everybody wins a trophy.”

“Some people are losers.”

“This is what happens when you give kids awards for just participating.”

When other folks say things things to us, it’s disheartening. The moment we say it to ourselves it’s destructive. It strips away our ability to sympathize with our peers, when we’re perhaps the only folks who can truly do so. It makes us dismissive. More apt to “get ours” before the “moochers” do. The idea that we and we alone have “earned” what we have makes us egotistical and vain. In the real world, not every gets a trophy, so when we do, we should be able to bask in the subsequent glory. In short, it seems to create the exact same attitude of greed, laziness, and egotism that we’ve been accused of in the first place! And as that image becomes verified, so do the accusations lobbed from on-high, and the whole process continues in a vicious cycle of fear of self-loathing. And what should be, by all rights, one of the most progressive and empowered generations in history will swiftly devolve into the most timid and self-defeating.

And to hell with that.

Look, I don’t even disagree with the idea that people shouldn’t just be handed an award for participating. I myself have made that very argument- that baseless self-esteem ultimately harms the person receiving it. But this has nothing to do with any genuine concern for my generation’s well being, it’s about soothing the guilt of so many failed-hippies-gone-investment bankers and former Nirvana fans. That is why this myth exists, even in the absence of all evidence and in the face of all reason.

I refuse to be sold on that bull.

It’s my hope that you’ll do the same.


2 responses to “Not Everyone Got A Trophy

  1. I sympathize with the gist of your paper, for I abhor generation bashing. I also don’t know the numbers for the trophy issue, so you may be right there. But: there is plenty of evidence supporting an increasing sense of entitlement, maybe not among the entire generation, but at least subsets of it (for instance students who go to the top 200 universities, or such). I think the generational resentment or prejudices often are based on data drawn from there. Of course, generalizations based on that are stupid, but that does not mean that there are no issues. A few examples:

    The average studying time among students is extremely low. It used to be way over 20 hours. It should be between 30 and 40 hours in addition to in-class time–unless students also work, which at those institutions relatively few students do. If you look at community colleges and such, the situation changes, of course. But at most such top-200 places nowadays average study time is below 15 hours. At the same time, the expectations for high grades are higher nowadays, as are the expectations of future achievements, as is their overall level of self-esteem. In short, they expect to do well while doing less, and in spite of plenty of evidence that their average knowledge and skill after high school is not even mediocre. By the same token, a higher percentage nowadays feels overburdened by the amount of work. Well, if in college you feel overburdened by about a day’s worth work, that at least indicates how little you have done in high school and how little was required of you. That may not be quite the same as giving out trophies all the time, but it is not far from it.

    Whenever I ask elementary school teachers what they see and witness teaching-wise, they frequently complain about excessive positive reinforcement–something that you also can find in education textbooks for those grades. Such reinforcement is effective only when you place it well, but when you use it all the time, a la “oh, so you think 1×1 is 3, well that is one opinion,” the effects are disastrous. For one, it sends the signal that opinions matter, and thus the person having the opinion, rather than the quality of arguments and thinking. It is a way to boost confidence, but also egocentrism. International comparisons support that this is a particular problem in the US. Average US students score high on self-esteem and confidence while scoring low to middle-field on ability and knowledge. The results can also be seen in the decline of political discussion culture, for instance. But I also see many students who are barely able to grasp the difference between a good argument and a mere opinion anymore. 30 years ago, few people would have had that problem.

    Or talk to people who hire. In the last 15 years, I have talked to a good number of those, and many told me that they very often find younger people asking for unrealistically high salaries without being willing to take on serious commitments, and when they do, they often fail or disappoint. In fact, I know several companies that more or less stopped hiring people under 25 because of the lack of maturity and their distorted views. Often, that lack of maturity and reliability undermines the little bit of extra technical know-how that they may have by comparison to someone in his/her 40s or 50s. It is not just wanting to take on a high-pay job to pay off loans. It is also about being totally unrealistic about how one compares to others. That is indicative of a boosted self-esteem. This may not be true about the entire generation, but it is true for subsets that did not show these characteristics before.

    And finally, the average level of empathy has decreased sharply among college-aged people. That correlates with an increase of egocentrism.

    So whatever you mean by there not being any evidence, I think you are simply wrong on that one. None of the above is conclusive in any way, but it is suggestive, to say the least. At least it provides reasons for discussion.

  2. Pingback: We Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Yet Another Millennial Throws His Peers Under the Bus | Culture War Reporters

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