Emily Articulated: Keep Calm and Leave a Damn Tip

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

Finally, I’ve been thwarted; a study released that I can’t put a cheeky, it’s-not-a-Millennial-thing-it’s-an-everyone-thing spin on. Millennials have scored lowest in a standard near to my heart, and I am truly disappointed. Like most things, however, there could be a social theory to explain it.

But first, let me back up.

Emily Erickson.

My inaugural job outside of lemonade stands and babysitting children I was highly unqualified to tend was at King Cone, a small ice cream shop in my thousand-person Wisconsin hometown. I was freshly 14, carrying my specially signed underage worker permit to my soft serve cone twist training day.

Full of youthful determination and rampant eagerness to prove myself, I quickly mastered a seven twist twirl, the chocolate and vanilla ice cream piling in even layers above the flaky, waffle-stye cone.

Proving my competence, I was led over to the counter to learn the nuances of the front register. It was old and gray, with clunky, plastic-covered buttons and a manual calculator below a large spool of carbon receipt printer paper.

And then I saw it, strategically placed between the customers’ purses and wallets and their ice creamy delights. Looking at the curve of the glass glinting in the sun, I was completely oblivious to the social and economic intricacies, the reflection of character, and the opportunity for kindness encompassed within. It was a tip jar. And I’d never seen one before.

After years of scooping Moose Tracks and malting milkshakes and eventually mastering sandwich artistry at Subway, I went off to college and acquired my first waitressing and bartending job at Titletown Brewery, a brew pub outside of Lambeau Field in Green Bay (Go Pack go).

It was there that I learned a harrowing fact. Some people are just shitty tippers. It didn’t matter if I provided impeccable service, or that I was working full time while taking a maximum credit load to put myself through college. The quality of the food or the speed at which I could pour a beer really didn’t matter. I didn’t matter. 

Ultimately, tipping came down to the customer; their means, their philosophy and their background.

So yesterday, when I flipped open my laptop and clicked on the article nestled in my email’s inbox reading, “Millennials are the Worst Tippers in America,” my brain scrambled to make sense of it all.

According to a survey by CreditCards.com, Millennials tip, on average, 15 percent less than other generations, with 10 percent of Millennials declining tipping anything at all and the large majority tipping less than the socially accepted 18-20 percent.

After scanning through various articles covering the survey (because everyone loves a good Millennial slam) the general consensus was that Millennials frequently have the least amount of money, and therefore, have the least motivation to leave a proper tip.

But having worked in restaurants and being someone who’s simultaneously stretched pennies and left appropriately calculated tips, I don’t buy it. If you can afford to go out to eat, you can afford to leave tip that the built-in system expects. Let me repeat; if you can order a kale salad with no onion, sub spinach, add extra avocado on the side and request three baskets of free bread, you can leave a three-dollar tip on your 12-dollar meal.

So instead of this bad tipping Millennial phenomena being solely a product of means, I think there is more going on. I think a bit of conflict theory is at play.

Conflict theory contends that social structures are created through conflict between people with differing interests and resources. Social structures are the unwritten rules we, as functioning members of society, participate in, with or without being aware of them, and conflict arises when people feel as though their access to resources is either restricted or diminished because of a power greater than themselves.

More simply, odd social patterns arise when groups of people feel like they lack control over various aspects of their lives and their means.

In thinking about Millennials leaving disproportionately poor tips in comparison to other generations, they could be exercising an ability to exert control over a situation in lives where they can’t often do so.

If Millennials feel like they followed all the right rules, getting degrees (and consequently debt), getting entry-level jobs, and crappy apartments they can barely afford, and are still struggling to make ends meet, they may feel generally thwarted by the system. They may feel the conflict of being generally out of control of their lives.

So in a restaurant, when Millennials have direct power over how much they can tip, power over a singular aspect of their lives and finances in the swoop of their signing pens, they may be leaving less than adequate tips simply because they can. It has nothing to do with the service or the value of their experience, but everything to do with how they feel.

Maybe I’m wrong, but perhaps I’m not. So Becky, Chad, if you’re reading this, Keep Calm, and Leave a Damn Tip.

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