It’s no secret that today’s workforce isn’t into working 9 to 5, coming to a physical office each day. But I was shocked when I read a piece by Ira Wolfe, which details a conversation he overheard where a millennial said his life would be over if he worked a 40-hour week. Millennials are hard-working and dedicated. I was concerned that the subject in Wolfe’s piece was portraying a negative image and wondered if his comment had any teeth.
I interviewed Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions, a provider of pre-employment and leadership development tests, and author of “Perfect Labor Storm 2.0” and “Geeks, Geezers and Googlization,” to discuss millennials’ attitudes toward work, how they differ compared to generations before them and whether it really is time to get rid of 9 to 5.
When it comes to attitudes about work, how is each generation’s different?
Wolfe: Let’s get real. Attitudes about work are different from one generation to another. You don’t think that children raised on farms during the early years of the Industrial Revolution were derided by their parents when they left to work in factories? Working 40 hours shift work with weekends off was creating a generation of deadbeats, believed the elders. More than century later, older generations viewed college-educated, white-collar job-holders as slouches. Sitting at a desk in an office working 9 to 5 just didn’t hold the same weight as working in the mines, mills and factory floors. That attitude is not much different than comments you hear today when you hear older workers complain about the bad work ethic of young people.
While it’s critical to avoid the tendency to stereotype, it’s inevitable and somewhat accurate to describe each generation’s attitude toward work in these terms:
Traditionalists (born 1945 and before): The oldest worker demographic were “company men.” They dedicated their lives to the company and the crowning achievement at the end of a career was the gold watch. They viewed anything less than 40 or more years in the same job at the same company as failure. Leisure was the reward for hard work. Many lived and died on the job (or shortly after retirement), but those were the risks. Job security and stability were motivating factors.
Baby boomers (1946-1964): The dominant demographic for the last few decades is the “workaholic” generation. Boomers live to work. Loyalty to the company waned as company closures, layoffs, re-engineering, down-sizing and outsourcing shattered the myth of a lifelong job. Marriages, families and even personal health succumbed to work. Career advancement, job titles and money were motivating factors. Most baby boomers stuck with the same career, they just sought opportunity to climb higher on the same ladder. Leisure time was and is the point of life.
Generation X (1965-1980): The demographic that turned “free-agency” into a work culture. Life for the Gen X is balance between work hard and play hard. With company loyalty to employees nearly extinct by the time Gen X arrived on the scene, Gen X responded with job hopping extraordinaire. This didn’t evolve out of disrespect but to avoid being pigeonholed in a job or industry. A freelance job market emerged thanks to the Internet. A job was just a contract to work, no more, no less. Projects generally begin and end and few last more than a couple of years, certainly not decades as they did for older generations.
Millennials (1981-2000): The heir-apparent demographic in the workforce. Work is a means to an end. Work-life balance is their mantra. Millennials therefore (also called Gen Y) work to play. Not only will the millennials job- and industry-hop, but they will career hop, too. Millennials approach work as an experience. The end game of a career is that they made a difference in the world. Jobs are merely opportunities to learn, experiment, gain experience and become more well-rounded. As distasteful as that sounds to employers, it doesn’t mean the millennial is not smart, skilled and hard-working. If the job or opportunity doesn’t challenge them anymore, they switch jobs in a heartbeat.
What can we credit the differences to? Did boomers feel the way millennials do now when they were younger, or have times changed?
Wolfe: “What is it with young people these days?” is probably the most common question and concern I hear from clients and audiences these days. So let me start with a very simple but critical premise: the attitudes of each generation are different, not good or bad. Without a doubt each older generation has viewed its younger successor as brash and uppity. Younger generations look upward and see gray and staunchy.
But despite this loud roar of near-apocalyptic differences in attitudes between generations cited by the media, research is on the fence whether these differences are based on one generation’s perspective defined by events or concerns expressed by all generations at similar states in life and career.
Regardless of the cause, the notion that one generation’s attitude is good or bad is just bad business. Yes, there are individuals in each generation that have good and bad attitudes about work. But bad attitudes don’t infect an entire generation of tens of millions of people. In fact, I’m often embarrassed by the negative and disparaging attitudes of many of my peers (baby boomers) toward work and excited by the holistic and fresh outlook that millennials offer.
There is no question that historical events such as Pearl Harbor, landing on the Moon, the death of key leaders and great recessions imprint indelible messages in the minds of young people. These messages shape the lives of these young adults as they enter adulthood. They influence how they see the world and how the world sees them. But they don’t create an entire generation with a single universal attitude. We’re talking about millions of humans, not robots. Society and the marketplace that responds to these life-changing events likely have a greater impact on the life and times of each generation than the events themselves. For example, the Internet surely had a more pervasive and permanent effect on how a generation of young people will live and work as adults than the terrorist attack on 9/11.
Let’s talk about millennials more specifically. Why are they against 9 to 5, full-time work so much?
Wolfe: Globalization, technology and the pace of change are changing the way we live. Each generation responds differently.
For the digital native millennials, this new world is the only world they ever knew. Google has made the world’s information “universally accessible and useful.” Information is available at the click of a key or screen. Ask a question, get an answer. The world is open and available 24/7. The pace of innovation and change is incredible. While it took 38 years for 50 million of our grandparents to adopt the radio, it only took 13 years for 50 million baby boomers to do the same with the television. Compare that to three years for Apple to gain 50 million iPod users and several social media networks to achieve that in months. While boomers remember the introduction of the TV, millennials can only read about those events in books or hear stories from older people. Many millennials are too young to remember the introduction of the iPod!
For baby boomers, this is a “new normal.” Some embrace the changes while others fight it tooth and nail. Depending upon whose shoes you walk shifts your worldview. Millennials see the world only as it is. Boomers and even Gen X see it as it is … and was.
The definition of work is also changing. Nine to 5 work is so … let’s say agricultural and industrial age. The 9 to 5 schedule was developed around sunlight. Workers could arrive in the light and return home before dark. People walked to work. Life was based in the neighborhood. Businesses controlled when customers bought goods and sought services. That world is history.
Today night and day are almost irrelevant. Many people don’t “go to work.” They pick up their laptop or tablet or smartphone and they are at work. Automation has increased productivity beyond expectations. What used to take eight hours for an employee to complete can now take minutes. Services for almost anything imaginable are available 24/7. If not available down the street, tap a screen (or ask Siri) and connect with some business half way around the world. Need an answer? Google it. There’s no such thing as needing to wait to go to a library or seek out an expert. Nine to 5 is irrelevant because millennials grew up in a world where they had access to what they wanted when they wanted it. They expect the same from employers. Whether it is applying for a job or getting feedback from a manager, they expect it now. And why not? That’s the way the world is built now.
Regarding full time — Why work eight hours when you can get it done in four?
What do they want instead?
Wolfe: The perception of older generations is very different from the reality. Managers often describe millennials as entitled, superficial, impatient, job-hopping and “trophy kids.”
Surprisingly research shows millennials aren’t that much unlike the generations that walked before them. Similar descriptors were applied to baby boomers by the traditionalists and Generation X by the boomers. When it comes to views about the workplace, the differences are slight between generations. Ironically, millennials are more satisfied with their opportunities for growth, recognition, job security and even their company as a place to work than boomers and Gen X.
A very surprising finding is that the notion of job hopping may have much more to do with stage of life than the millennial generation as a whole. According to the Kenexa study, 31 percent of 27-year-old Generation Xers were considering leaving their organization in 1990. Almost two decades later, they found that 31 percent of 27-year-old millennials were also considering leaving.
Like every generation entering the workforce, millennials want opportunity. But unlike previous generations, especially baby boomers and their predecessors, millennials want it now. This clearly has to do with the digital times we live in. It’s not that millennials aren’t willing to work hard when offered the opportunity, but they aren’t willing to pay their dues without some promise of getting more than just a paycheck in return. Unlike boomers, the payback isn’t always about money. It’s about instant gratification and urgency. And that gratification could come in the way of feedback and encouragement, which many baby boomers hold tighter than the gold in Fort Knox.
In their defense, why should millennials trust employers or government for that matter? How many of their parents and relatives worked decades for the same company in the same job in exchange for job security, career advancement and a comfortable retirement? What they received, however, proved to be empty promises. They don’t trust corporate America or big government. They didn’t create the world they live in — their parents and grandparents did.
To make a difference they seek and demand transparency. Wanting direct access to the “boss” isn’t a sign of disrespect for hierarchy, authority and bureaucracy. It’s a generational coping mechanism to make sure they are informed and connected. They have big aspirations for our world. They seek solutions tied to a bigger purpose and want to be actively engaged in the process.
Speaking of being connected, millennials have a passion for networking. Social networking isn’t so different than writing pen pals was for baby boomers. Twitter and Facebook is just passing notes in the hallway and pen pals on steroids. It’s just light years faster, more ubiquitous. For millennials it’s not something frivolous, but natural and essential for their well-being. Whether you like social media or not, it’s changing the way the world communicates. And since millennials are already nearly half of the world’s workforce, companies need to adapt.
Baby boomers might be described as individualistic. Millennials seek individualism. There’s a huge difference. This individualism is evident in the prevalence in tattoos and body piercings. This need for self-expression helps millennials stand out from the group but still belong to a larger world. Millennials want to belong, thanks to the connectivity of the Internet and social media and globalization. They want to feel part of and are more accepting of others who are very different in color, race and class.
Is it up to corporate America to accommodate?
Wolfe: The answer is simple … yes and no! Yes, businesses must change the way they do business. This isn’t your grandpa’s world anymore. Competition is fierce for customers and qualified and capable workers. Failure to accommodate is a train wreck waiting to happen.
But generational differences have always existed. Many of the business practices used in the past still work.
What is different today is that change is happening faster and faster, and more generations are working side by side than any time in history. The scope and pace of change is massive and accelerating. The opportunity for different viewpoints between generations is growing exponentially larger.
The goal for organizations today must be to capitalize, but not capitulate to this diversity. Management can’t contain it, stifle it or succumb to it. They must strategically manage the diversity of generations and simultaneously address individual differences. Tap into the potential and adapt.
Do these young workers have the potential to change the future, or do they have to just join the system?
Wolfe: Absolutely, they have the potential. Eighty million people (that’s how many millennials there are in the U.S.) is a lot of people to choose from. As I mentioned earlier, not every millennial will be hard-working, conscientious and ambitious. Bad apples do exist, but that’s true for every age, socioeconomic and cultural group.
As a whole, the millennial generation offers a lot of promise and hope, and they are a large force to be reckoned with. Within the millennials, millions of these young workers have high potential given the right opportunity, mentoring, resources and support.
Changes in the makeup and management of the workforce are inevitable. It’s up to individual companies to adopt this generation and adapt their strategies and management style to the millennial generation.
But it’s a two-way street. Millennials, like employees from all generations, will be judged on their merits going forward. They need to acquire skills that employers need, and that includes social as well as technical abilities. Millennials need to bring their best game to work to be recognized as viable contributors.
It’s becoming a dog-eat-dog world out there and competition is fierce. The companies that will thrive will be those that meet and greet millennials half-way. In turn, millennials will receive the opportunities they seek and the career and life rewards they want.