'I would like to speak to whoever is in charge.'
'That would be me, sir.'
'No, I would like to speak to whoever is actually in charge. A manager.'
'Still me, sir.'
When I was at university, I worked in the students' union retail department as a team leader. I was 18 at the time, so when customers asked to speak with 'whoever' was 'in charge', I often got the impression that they didn't believe me when I told them that was me. Their doubtful glances, along with some other patronising comments, convinced me that I wasn't really qualified to be in charge; I was just masquerading as someone in a position of authority, and it was simply luck that I had acquired the position in the first place. I felt as though I was wearing a name tag with 'FRAUD' written in giant, bold letters and all someone had to do was notice.
This is imposter syndrome, first identified in the 1970s though only added to the Oxford English Dictionary as recently as last month. Easily, though incorrectly, confused with a lack of confidence, imposter syndrome is a feeling of phoniness that, according to the International Journal of Behavioural Science, prohibits 70% of us from believing that our successes have been legitimately achieved. Instead, we downplay them by attributing them to luck or being in the right place at the right time.
Imposter syndrome, as it's colloquially known, was initially theorised by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes as a gendered experience to which women were uniquely susceptible. Subsequent studies have shown that anyone can experience it, but recent reports have stressed the prevalence of the phenomenon among millennials.
Last October, the career development agency Amazing If published research exploring how UK millennials feel about their careers and found that virtually a third of them fear being identified by a colleague or manager as someone who is not good enough to be there. The study found that 52% fear being put on the spot while two in five are afraid of presenting. It also revealed that 40% of female millennials are intimidated by senior staff, compared with 22% of males. While it is important not to conflate imposter syndrome with normal feelings of self-doubt, it does appear that lack of confidence is a real issue in the workplace, particularly among those in the formative years of their careers.
Young people may have trouble feeling secure in their roles because they lack relevant experience. A survey undertaken by the Chartered Management Institute and EY Foundation last year found that more than half of people between the ages of 16 and 21 think it is challenging to get experience in a field in which they are interested. What's worse, the names of companies who do offer work experience opportunities usually share headlines with words like 'exploitation'. Only last month Urban Outfitters, an American fashion retailer whose net income was over $200 million in 2016, was heavily criticised for advertising a year-long, full-time and unpaid internship in London.
This crisis of confidence may also be a result of the reportedly high levels of stress and anxiety among British millennials. Earlier this year a report compiled by the Varkey Foundation revealed that British teenagers and young adults came second only to Japan for the title of worst mental wellbeing in the world. This, alongside a deficit of opportunity, may be contributing to the feelings of paranoia or impostorism young people feel in the workplace.
More generally, though, millennials are perhaps simply more predisposed than other age groups to feeling insecure about their place at work, home and in the wider world. When we are younger, we are comforted by the idea that the world is run by fully-qualified grown-ups. Then we grow older, take a look around and realise that barely anyone really knows what they're doing. The irony is that the grown-ups 'in charge' who aren't nearly qualified for their roles are the very ones who don't experience imposter syndrome.
This is a daunting realisation, though somewhat comforting. It's difficult feeling as though you are the only one who isn't secure in where they are or what they're doing, so it's quite relieving to know that you're part of a majority. It's not exactly inspiring, but it's the truth: we're all just winging it.