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Do Millennials Have a Lesser Work Ethic?

The actual science from national survey data over time

The collision between the Millennial generation’s expectations and reality was in full display recently, as 25-year-old Yelp employee Talia Jane wrote an open letter to the company’s CEO complaining about her job and was promptly fired.

Jane has some undeniable points about the egregiously expensive rent in the Bay Area and the general ignorance of the well-off to recognize how difficult it is to make it these days. Yet her letter also captures the complaints many managers have about some young workers: They want to start at the top, and their work ethic leaves something to be desired. (For example, Jane complained that she was told she would have to work in an entry-level position for an entire year—italics and bold hers—a prospect hardly shocking to previous generations who realized they would have to work their way up).

Her letter has also reignited a debate over the work ethic of Millennials (born, approximately, 1980-1994; I call them Generation Me). Stefanie Williams, at 30 just a few years older than Jane, wrote a response suggesting that young people like Jane just need to develop a better work ethic if they want to make it.

Then got into the mix, saying that “science sets us straight” that the “truth about Millennial work ethic” is, in short, that it’s just fine.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

The problem is that the “science” they cite doesn’t answer the question of whether there are generational differences in work ethic—it doesn’t even come close. They cite:

1. A survey from Seventeen magazine finding that 80% of college and high school students take at least a part-time job during the school year—a higher rate than ever before. Actually, large, nationally representative surveys find that the opposite: Fewer high school and college students work during the school year compared to previous generations.

2. A survey of UPenn business students finding that 1992 graduates expected to work 58 hours a week; 2012 graduates expected to work 72 hours. This is what they expect; it says nothing about what they actually did, and does not reflect on changing standards at work including the flexibility allowed by technology.

3. A survey from Bentley University finding that half of Millennials are willing to work long hours and weekends to achieve career success. But how does that compare to previous generations? Perhaps an even higher percentage of Boomers and Gen X’ers were willing to work long hours. You can’t conclude that generational differences exist with data from just one generation—it’s impossible.

4. A survey by Ernst & Young found that 47% of Millennials in management positions have begun working more hours in the last five years compared to 38% of Gen X and 28% of Boomers. Of course they have—they are young and just got the management jobs, while Boomers have one foot out the door to retirement. This difference is likely due to age and career stage, not generation.

What we really need are large, nationally representative surveys of the generations over time when they were the same age, so we have data on several generations and can take age out of the picture.

So what do surveys like this show? In fact, the science does support the idea that Millennials have a lower work ethic. For example, the nationally representative Monitoring the Future project has surveyed half a million high school seniors since 1976. Here’s how the generations answered three questions relevant for work ethic:

Boomers Gen X Millennials

Don't want to work hard 26% 30% 38%

Willing to work overtime 59% 56% 47%

If had enough money 22% 26% 29%

would not want to work

(Remember, this is what young people say about themselves, and age is held constant—these must be generational or cultural changes).

Yet at the same time Millennials are still more likely to say money is very important and that they want to buy expensive things (Tim Kasser and I explored this in a paper a few years ago). This is entitlement—so it’s not surprising that’s the word on everyone’s lips in discussing this problem.

Of course, like any study comparing groups, these are averages. There are certainly exceptions. It’s also worth noting that the majority of Millennials say they are willing to work hard—but there’s a growing minority (from 26% to 38%) who say they are not. It goes without saying, but everyone should judge people based on their individual merits, not their generation. However, we also shouldn’t put our heads in the sand about what Millennials are saying about themselves and their work ethic.

I used to ask my class of undergraduate students to name five good things and five bad things about their generation. For years, “lazy” was consistently among the students' top five responses for bad things. For years, I’d tell the students, “There’s no evidence of that.” Then I came across this data. As much as I’d like to, I don’t say that anymore.

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