How the Millennial Mind-Set Could Affect the Workforce—for the Better

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If you are in your 20s, you are hoping the answer to the question above 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 end up crowning Gen Y as the real “greatest generation,” leaving a lot of Baby Boomer historians and journalists with looks of consternation.

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 embraced automation 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 re-examine 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. 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 onto a 5-year-old, you end up with some unwanted results. For example, take the portion of Millennial males who believe “I’m OK no matter what, so there is no need to be successful” and therefore 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.) Or take the portion of Millennial females who believe “If I’m OK no matter what, then nothing is really ever my fault,” and so don’t have a basic level of personal accountability. (Interestingly, the women of Gen Y are much less likely to apologize than Boomer women.)

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