When I last visited with my father, a 95 year-old retired teamster, he asked me at dinner, “What happened to the American work ethic?”
I was relieved to learn that he wasn’t talking about my work ethic but that of the younger staff at the nursing home where he volunteers several days a week. He told me that the staff didn’t “seem to care.” Their attitude, he said, was that work wasn’t something you took pride in, but something you had to do between weekends.
My father is a member of what Tom Brokaw named “the greatest generation,” and they truly are. What makes my father’s generation great is not that they grew up working hard during the Great Depression, when there were few good jobs available and you took whatever work you could find. It’s not that they came out of the Great Depression only to enter military service and fight in World War II, where many served for “the duration,” not just a 12-month tour.
What makes them the “greatest” is their response to events that pushed an entire generation to its limits. They took all that life threw at them and created the strongest economy and the highest standard of living in the world. Their persistence in the face of adversity is what defines their greatness.
So, what is it that makes the work ethic of this generation, the Millennials, different?
Millennials aren’t much different from their peers in other countries, not at least according to people I know around the world. In email exchanges with friends in Europe, China and Australia, I’ve learned that the Millenials’ perceived “lack of work ethic” isn’t a problem unique to the United States. Employers worldwide seem to have the same issue — the inability to find people who are willing to “show up, show up on time, and show up ready to work.”
While they may be similar to their peer group worldwide, Millennials are different from the three generations that preceded them in at least one significant way. In the Pew Research Center report “Millennial: A Portrait of Generation Next,” more than 60 percent of Millennials describe their generation as having a “unique and distinctive identity,” a percentage similar to how other generations — Baby Boomers, Gen X and the Silent Generation — described themselves.
However, when asked to describe what makes their generation unique, previous generations all listed “work ethic” among their top five responses.
Millennials did not. They believe that their “use and understanding of technology, their music and pop culture, their liberal and tolerant beliefs, their greater intelligence, and their clothes” are what gives them a “unique and distinctive identity.”
By their own admission, “work ethic” isn’t a defining characteristic of the Millennial generation.
Many employers agree.
Is it that Millennials don’t have a work ethic, or is there simply a difference among the generations in how “work ethic” is defined?
For my father, “work ethic” meant working hard and for him that was demanding physical labor. For Baby Boomers, “work ethic” means working long hours to get the job done. Most Baby Boomers aren’t engaged in physically demanding work as much as we are in mentally demanding work.
For Gen X, “work ethic” means working smarter, not necessarily harder or longer.
For many Millennials, “work ethic” means getting the job done as easily and fast as possible so they can get on with enjoying life. It’s about “working to live” not “living to work.”
Millennials simply don’t view “work” in the same way as their Baby Boomer managers, and there’s the rub. To understand that they define “work ethic” differently than the three generations before them is to understand the disconnect they have with the traditional work environment.
This generation has grown up with the constant threat of terrorism and knowing only a country at war. Are they that much different from Baby Boomers who grew up with the Doomsday Clock during the cold war? Is the Millennials’ reaction so much different from the peace movement of the 1960s and 1970s, than the Summer of Love?
Baby Boomers grew into their responsibilities and perhaps Millennials will, too. I wonder if they will change their definition of work ethic when they rise to positions having responsibility for the bottom line.
I also wonder what will define their greatness.
Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation Clinton County.