The New Ways Millennials are Approaching Work and Love
New research on millennials shows how they’re blending love and work life.
Posted Sep 24, 2019
Among the many myths about millennials, or the generation born around the 2000 mark, is that they are unmotivated if not downright lazy when it comes to work. Research on people of this generation continues to challenge this myth, but like so many stereotypes based on people’s era of birth, the myth persists.
New York Times authors Claire Cain Miller and Sanam Yar challenged the millennial work ethic myth in an investigation titled “Young People are Going to Save Us All From Office Life.” The article’s authors propose that the current generation of young adults are not trying to sail through their days with as little effort as possible. Instead, they are trying to achieve the kind of balance between their personal and work roles that can enhance their life’s fulfillment.
The evidence that Miller and Yar provide is derived from interviews with workers from the millennial generation, corporate executives, and survey data. In their opening to the article, they quote one 28-year-old who traded her traditional office job in a bank for a position with flexible hours in a startup that also encouraged employees to take vacations. At the same time, she “doesn’t mind answering work emails while sitting by the fire on a recent camping trip; “That’s how millennials and Gen Z-ers are playing the game—it’s not about jumping up titles, but moving into better work environments,” she said. “They’re like silent fighters, rewriting policy under the nose of the boomers.” Rather than being tied to the desk, they want to take the desk with them, working from home to accommodate personal and family schedules, but also getting the job done as demanded by the task.
As Miller and Yar note, it is, unfortunately, true that the privilege of finding flexible employment is the domain of people with college degrees and white-collar jobs, but as the authors point out, these will be the bosses of tomorrow who themselves should be able to reshape the home-work balance of their employees. As a vice president of a tech company notes in the article, “They have proven the model that you don’t need to be in the office 9 to 5 to be effective.”
As impressive as the analysis provides from a newsworthy perspective, what is the support from the perspective of empirical research? To answer this question, it’s necessary to go back to a 2015 published article by University of Guelph’s Sean Lyons and colleagues, who investigated the changing career patterns across the four generations of pre-baby boomers (“matures”), baby boomers, gen X’ers, and millennials. For the record, it’s worth noting that these generational labels can be misleading, because of the obvious fact that not everyone from a certain 20-year span is exactly alike. Indeed, as the Miller and Yar themselves pointed out, their observations right now only apply to people from more privileged segments of the workforce. However, if you think of generational differences as reflecting the general climate in which people develop, the distinctions can be worthwhile. If you’re born in a period of relative prosperity, as was true for people of the baby boom generation, your development will be affected by those broad cultural and economic forces.
Turning now to the Lyons et al. study, the premise of their work was that successive generations, starting with the baby boomers, “have adapted to the changing labor market by accepting more non-traditional work arrangements” while also adopting a “chutes and ladders” instead of “career ladder” approach to their lives, and now have “dynamic, multi-directional and boundaryless career paths motivated by the pursuit of individualistic goals and values” rather than “loyalty and stability” (pp. 8-9). People with the boundaryless career mindset identify with their profession above the organization perhaps as a protection against the ever-growing possibility of being laid off as casualties of downsizing or corporate restructuring. The Canadian team suggests that “The careers literature tends to accept that high career mobility has become the “new normal” (p. 10).
The research team divided the 2555 participants in the Lyons et al. study into their respective generational groupings, and they were evenly split between male and female genders. Participants provided data on their job mobility based on the number of jobs they ever held (minus one to account for the first job), including those with the same employer, divided by the number of years worked, to account for the different lengths of employment for different generations. They also reported on their organizational mobility, their upward career moves, downward career moves, lateral career moves, and changes of career track. Lyons et al. then calculated the mobility index based on these measures as the number of employers for which a person has worked divided by the number of job changes. A number close to one on this index means, then, that more of a person’s job changes involved changes of employer. However, to take into account the fact that not all job changes are welcome ones, the authors also included an index of involuntary moves.
As you were reading about these measures, did you stop and consider your own career mobility (or if you never worked outside the home) that of someone close to you? What drove those job changes? How welcome or stressful were those changes? When you look at the millennials around you, either in the workplace or in your family, what do you think their criteria are for a fulfilling work life? Do you think they would move out of a job if they felt it was inhibiting their ability to feel that they were achieving their personal as well as professional goals? Even more to the point of the original Cain and Yar article, do you see the goalposts shifting in terms of what individuals seek in arriving at a better balance between their personal lives and their careers?
In accordance with the predictions of the study authors, the findings comparing participants across the generations showed that there was, as expected, higher mobility in the two younger, compared with the two older, generations. Millennials scored at 1.28 in their number of job changes per year compared with the .28 and.39 of the older generations, and the .71 of the Gen X’ers. However, the two younger generations had higher involuntary mobility rates than the two older generations, supporting what appears to be a growing societal trend of less job security in younger adults compared to their older counterparts. It is also important to keep in mind that there could be a higher rate of job turnover earlier in adulthood in general, so that a similar study done 50 years ago might have produced similar types of generational, but not age-related, trends.
Of the involuntary career changes, the Lyons et al. findings showed the baby boomers to be relatively disadvantaged, as they were less likely to progress upward in the job hierarchy than their elders, and more likely to be involved in lateral or downward career moves. Compared to the younger generations, baby boomers furthermore were no different in career track changes, and compared to millennials only, slightly more likely to make lateral moves.
The greater mobility shown by the millennials in this study may reflect, according to the authors, not a desire to be more free-wheeling in determining their career, but a realistic response to changes in labor market trends and economic conditions. Their mobility is an attempt to “improve their career capital and take advantage of developmental opportunities” (p. 17). As a result, the authors advise that employers consider shifting their own approaches to recruitment and retention, to allow those younger workers to feel that they have opportunities for moving up the organizational hierarchy, even while they seek greater balance with their desire for a life outside of work.
To sum up, the findings do not exactly complement the conclusions of the Miller and Yar article, but do suggest that this youngest generation of workers may be redefining career and marketplace success. The job attitudes and experiences of the millennials may very well look different from that of their elders, and perhaps be one that allows them to obtain long-term fulfillment.
Lyons, S. T., Schweitzer, L., & Ng, E. S. W. (2015). How have careers changed? An investigation of changing career patterns across four generations. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30(1), 8–21. doi:10.1108/JMP-07-2014-0210