How the Millennial Work Ethic May Permanently Improve the Economy

How the Millennial Work Ethic May Permanently Improve the Economy

Can we achieve more by working less?

If you are in your 20s, you are hoping the answer to this question is a big, barefooted “Yes!” If you’re in your 50s, this is a goal you have secretly cherished while professing the opposite to your employees and kids. If you are in your 30s or 40s, you think this is just the propaganda of the lazy trying to weasel their way into a shorter work week; and if you’re 60 or above, you think this question is the beginning of the end of the world. But if it’s true – if embracing the Gen Y work ethic could actually have us working less while achieving more – we could crown Gen Y as the real “greatest generation,” leaving a lot of World War II survivors and baby boomer historians and journalists with disturbed looks on their faces.

Let’s be honest: Baby boomers have worked fewer hours, and in cushier conditions, than their parents did. They are much more educated than their parents, lived at home longer, got married later and wanted to automate so they could get better results with less effort. Have they produced fewer results than previous generations? Do we think of them as entitled and lazy?

It’s almost a pattern we can trace through the past century: Each generation expected long hours and hard work to bring prosperity but then saw those expectations disappointed somehow, leading the next generation to reexamine what success looks like. Until the 1920s, most Americans had jobs that required 12-hour workdays. They believed that if they worked hard enough, the value of their companies would rise with the power of their efforts – but in the 1930s the economy crashed. Nowadays, hardworking Gen Xers can be very critical of the Gen Y work ethic, even though Gen Xers themselves were viewed as slackers by baby boomers and faced the economic fallout of the early 2000s. My point is that people of every generation have tried to make things easier, still working pretty hard in their own way while facing the judgment of previous generations; but they haven’t seen long-lasting results. We seem to have a work ethic that is by all accounts noble but fails to sustain success.

How is Gen Y different? They are told they’re too confident in their abilities and think too highly of themselves. But wait a second…these are their bad traits? When did liking yourself and believing you can succeed regardless of circumstances become undesirable attributes? Well, it’s complicated, so stick with me on this. If you force a lot of self-esteem into a 5-year-old, you end up with some unwanted results. For example, a percentage of males who believe “I’m OK no matter what, so there is no need to be successful” don’t exhibit a lot of ambition. (Only about 40 percent of U.S. college freshmen are male – and although pursuing a college education is not an exclusive indicator of ambition, the trend is telling.) A percentage of females will believe “If I’m OK no matter what, then nothing is really ever my fault,” so they don’t have a basic level of personal accountability. (Interestingly, the women of Gen Y are much less likely to apologize than boomer women.)

Sometimes great things come at a cost that at first glance is too high to pay. Could the “I’m OK no matter what” mindset be siphoning some millennials’ potential to achieve? It’s possible that as many as a third of Gen Y may have been sacrificed to produce the most confident, empowered generation of all time. So what makes what’s left of this generation so great? They believe that every problem comes with its own set of solutions; they were taught to partner and collaborate to succeed. They were taught it is, in fact, possible for everyone to win. If you get a group of millennials together to deliberate, they end up with an agreement; if you ask a bunch of boomers to try to work out their problems, they just end up with some very sophisticated blaming techniques. (“I’m not saying you’re wrong; I’m just saying that your ideas won’t work under these conditions!”) Just turn on your TV and watch the news; it’s full of gray-haired people in disagreement.

Most people in their 20s don’t need to be as right – or make others as wrong – as previous generations. They are also much less prejudiced and much more tolerant. This means that Gen Y could resolve political and religious differences that have existed for centuries. The collaboration worldwide will likely improve all economies. But it’s the desire to focus on working smart rather than working hard that will change the world forever. Free from the belief that effort and long hours are the foundation of innovation, they are uncovering new technologies to make more time in life for fun and to make their jobs meaningful and enjoyable.

People who don’t like their jobs don’t do a good job. That’s a fact, not a theory. More than any other generation, millennials will quit a job that leaves little time for the things they enjoy. For Gen Y to reach its potential (at work and in the world), they must find engagement in their workplace. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, 70% of all employees are not engaged at work. Disengaged employees are much less productive, which has led more than a few top business consultants to consider disengagement the biggest issue in corporate America. In short, hard work is not as productive as liking your work, because your commitment and awareness are lower. Working long hours with maximum effort while you are emotionally disengaged also increases your chances of making mistakes, according to Evolve Performance Group, a research firm that has surveyed thousands of employees in 46 countries and 28 languages.

Even more interesting, Harvard Business Review’s Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance outlines some basic keys to engagement as follows: (1) knowing my boss cares about me, (2) seeing a clear path to leadership and (3) knowing how my job helps the company be successful. Frequently cited by millennials, these engagement factors are all about feeling valuable in order to perform better at work – not about performing better so they can feel valued. That’s something to consider. Gallup surveys have shown this for 70 years; but still leaders have touted long hours, hard work and inflexible conditions, until recently, as we see Gen Y CEOs changing the model. What do you think the engagement levels are at Facebook and Google?

When Gen Y comes of age, based on what we have seen so far, they are likely to be the most productive workforce in history. It’s just that they might do it by showing up at 10 a.m., leaving at 5 p.m. (with a long lunch in there somewhere), and working late at night. The future never really looks exactly right to the people from the past. It may be possible that it took this many generations for mankind to figure out that hard work is what you do when you don’t really know how to succeed!

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