Millennials, Work Ethic, and Life Ethic

I would like to build upon Alex Steed’s response to last Saturday’s Washington Post article on the Millennial work ethic.

The Pew Report

The Post article was based on a survey from the Pew Research Center’s report on Millennials, in which Millennials were the only generation to not self-identify “work ethic” as one of the top 5 unique characteristics of the generation.

The Millennial responses are from Americans between 18 and 29 years of age. It would be extremely odd for Millennials to identify work ethic as a defining characteristic of the generation, not because it is lacking, but because of stage of life, societal perception, and the concept of uniqueness in general.

Stage of Life: A large number of Millennials 18-29 are still continuing their educations and have not started their careers, and the recession, which has resulted in over 20% unemployment for 16-24-year-olds, has delayed even more careers. A generation that is not yet immersed in the work force is not going to define work ethic as a unique generational characteristic.

Societal Perception: Millennials have also been told consistently by older generations that there is a work ethic disparity. The generation is still dealing with being the “kids these days” targets while seeing other generations touted for work ethic and walking to school in the snow uphill both ways. When Generation X was at this age they were the aimless lazy slackers in the eyes of their elders, and the Boomers were seen as worthless dirty hippies who needed to cut their hair. Neither would have probably identified work ethic as a unique characteristic at the time. I believe the Boomers would have considered that “square” back then. While a generation is still coming into its own, these perceptions of elders shouted into their heads like propaganda has an effect.

Concept of Uniqueness: It is interesting that when you look at the three older generations, they all share a number of “unique” generational characteristics. The Millennial answers seem to actually be more honest and unique compared to others. While all the generations believe they are smarter than the others, at least the Millennials have research to back their claims up (“Millennials appear to be on track to becoming the most educated generation in America‚Äôs history”). Point being, the fact that the question asked for unique characteristics certainly decreased the number of Millennials who would respond “work ethic.”

The Millennial Life Ethic

“It’s odd how soon one comes to look on every minute as wasted that is given to earning one’s salary.” – P.G. Wodehouse

Alex mentioned many of the books and films from Boomers and Xers as a “collective narrative unraveling of every lie ever baked into the 20th Century American narrative.” This portrayal of work, labor, and the American dream is not new. Thoreau exclaimed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and asked why it was that people “begin digging their graves as soon as they are born.” Thoreau seems especially prescient when we look at these aforementioned books and films when he calls it “a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”

Millennials, however, seem to be heeding the warnings that were ignored by previous generations. I have long believed that while each generation claims that they want to make the lives of the next generation better than their own, they have reserved the right to resent that better life. Interestingly enough, the elder generations somewhat screwed the Millennials in that regard, but we do have iPads.

This generation has what I call a strong life ethic. It refers to that concept of humanism that so many among the elder generations decry. For Millennials, DNA is not destiny. One is not obligated to follow the career footsteps of their parents, nor work a job for 40 years that one hates. The aims of self-actualization are often mistaken for entitlement. However, we each have only one life, why should we spend the majority of it doing something we hate? Why “begin digging our own graves?” This is not entitlement, it’s enlightenment.

Work/Life Balance vs. Work/Life Integration

Traditionally the relationship between work and life is portrayed as balancing forces, as if you should visualize a scale with one on each side. What is interesting about this view is that in it life is a separate if not opposite entity from work: a Venn diagram where the circles do not overlap. This is the 9-5 concept. During the hours of 9 to 5 your life is not your own. Once the clock hits 5 you punch out an return to your life.

With Millennials there is a trend toward work/life integration. One’s work is not a separate entity from their life, it is integrated with their life. Thoreau does not speak out against work and labor, but work and labor without meaning, purpose, or personal satisfaction. Millennials are looking for professions that are important to them, a passion that makes work something they believe in. The most visible advocate of this is 34-year-old Gary Vaynerchuk. This is what Alex was talking about with the “let’s make shit better” sector and the extremely hardworking Millennials that are passionate about what they do. Millennials are seeking careers that are not just what they do, but who they are.


The Washington Post article takes two Millennials, one at a car dealership and the other at a pizza place, quotes them bitching about 2 or 3 young employees (some still in college), and uses that to generalize the Millennial workforce as a whole. It is the same concept that talk show hosts use when they find some young people that can’t give the name of the first President. The point is that among all generations there are going to be lazy people and there are going to be uninformed people, and self-selected anecdotal evidence does not tell us anything.

Millennials are still establishing themselves professionally, though many have already made huge splashes (see Facebook). Despite the criticism today, I am confident that this generation will be grateful they have a strong life ethic 40 years from now.