What we thought we knew about millennials is dead wrong

millennials
Sam Woolfe

Many commentators like to stereotype millennials as lazy, narcissistic and entitled. Particularly when it comes to work. But a study [pdf] published in the journal Working, Aging and Retirement tells a different story. The findings show that differences in work values between generations are small, subtle and not easily divisible into three periods. But its starting point is the three accepted post World War Two generations: The baby-boomers, or boomers (born roughly 1945-early 60s); Generation X, or Gen-Xers (early 60s-early 80s); and millennials, or Gen Y (early 80s-2000).

Challenging stereotypes

Author Simon Sinek spoke about millennials in the workplace on Inside Quest. And the video went viral. Sinek suggests that millennials in the workplace aren’t hardworking and lack patience.

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But this study shows that these statements are overblown. Millennials value the outward rewards of work (money and status) only slightly less than Gen-Xers. And they value the inner rewards (skill development and creativity) of work marginally less than previous generations. It’s worth highlighting how tiny these differences are. 45% of millennials went against the overall pattern of generational differences.

Sinek claims that millennials in the workplace care more deeply about ‘making an impact’. Some surveys do bear this out. But these more recent findings, based on four million completed surveys, give a less stereotypical picture. Researchers found [pdf] that millennials value work that is socially worthwhile to a very slightly lesser extent than baby-boomers and Gen-Xers.

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There are some differences

Researchers point out [pdf] that millennials value the ‘leisure’ aspects of work – holidays, limited hours, an easy pace, and freedom from supervision – more than boomers and Gen-Xers. Although all generations prioritise these aspects below all the others. And, having peaked with people born in the mid 80s, the importance of leisure is falling.

But even if leisure values did matter more to millennials, does this mean Gen Y is Generation Lazy? Not necessarily. There’s a crucial difference between being unwilling to work and being unwilling to work in a way that jeopardises one’s well-being and mental health.

Why should caring about work-life balance be a negative? Working long hours is linked to depression. Micromanagement is a cause of stress and anxiety in the workplace. And it isn’t even effective as a form of leadership.

The status quo needs to change

People having control over when, where and how they work improves their mental health outcomes. So does having a fulfilling life, inside and outside of paid work. This is why millennials place such high value on it. Also, since Gen Y is suffering from high rates of anxiety, it’s no wonder that younger people are concerned about their well-being.

Stereotypes about millennials being lazy and self-entitled don’t hold up. Young people are navigating a different world from that of previous generations. While older generations may bemoan young people, this has always been the case. It’s a repeating pattern. Not a sign of recent social and moral decay.

All generations have confronted unique challenges: social, economic, cultural, political and technological. Recognising both the unique and common struggles of each generation can be a cause for understanding and compassion. In contrast, an ‘us and them’ mentality only causes bitterness among the older generations and self-judgement among young people. It’s unhelpful and needs to change.

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