When it comes to millennials’ work ethics, people love to speculate. The internet contains no shortage of articles from previous generations lamenting the lackluster performance of the 73 million millennials. Both Baby Boomers and Gen X reminisce often about the early days of their own careers, proudly recalling the sixty, seventy, even eighty hour work weeks they once endured with an implied longing for “the good old days.” Almost always, this reminiscing is accompanied by a scornful attitude towards millennials, who were fortunate enough to avoid the same fate.
Anecdotal accounts of your typical millennial paint them as lazy, spoiled, and entitled. They are far too sensitive to take the healthy dose of criticism they so badly need. They are impatient. They are selfish. Perhaps most infuriating of all, they expect to be handed privileges their elders had to work years to earn. According to many internet blogs, all of these faults can be traced back to weak millennial work ethics.
Yet as any digitally-savvy millennial knows, just because it’s written on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, if you enter the counterarguments to all of these stereotypes in a search engine, you come up with comparably abundant and contradictory results: Millennials are tough, patient, and selfless. And as for millennial work ethics? Turns out they’re a generation of workaholics.
So, which side is telling the truth? Is it all merely speculative generalization? If you go searching for factual, data-backed evidence of how millennial work ethics actually measure up against their older counterparts, the results may surprise you.
Let’s explore the hard evidence we actually have about millennial work ethics and — much more importantly — the evidence we don’t.
A Brief History of Work Ethics
In the interest of basing this discussion of millennial work ethics in as much fact as possible, let’s start with a quick crash course on the history of “work ethic” as a phenomenon.
Today, people operate under the assumption that working hard is a good thing to do. They might have different opinions about what that hard work should be directed towards, but people tend to agree that a strong work ethic is the antithesis to negative traits like laziness and apathy.
Yet, until a few hundred years ago, people didn’t see things this way. Aristotle, Plato, and many of their classical contemporaries saw work as “a corrupt waste of time,” a highly unpleasant necessity of life to be avoided whenever possible. It wasn’t until capitalism ramped up in the 16th century that people began to see work as a virtue at all. It was another three centuries before the first major academic piece about work ethic as a phenomenon was published.
Since then, the way scientists talk about work ethic has become increasingly refined. Today researchers measure work ethic using the multidimensional work ethic profile, more commonly referred to as the MWEP. The scale was designed by management expert Michael J. Miller in 2002 and captures an objective picture of a person’s work ethic by measuring it along seven dimensions.
Although most popular discussions of millennial work ethics are backed only by personal experience, a few studies have attempted to quantify millennial work ethics through this well-vetted scale. We’ll start by explaining what the seven dimensions of the MWEP measure, and then review what millennials work ethics actually look like, according to the scale.
Measuring Work Ethic
The MWEP breaks a person’s work ethic into six distinct parts:
- Hard work
- Morality and ethics
- Delay of gratification
- Wasted time
Here’s what each of those labels means:
Self-reliance means constantly seeking independence in the way one works. The MWEP assesses self-reliance by asking how strongly people agree with statements such as, “One must avoid dependence on others whenever possible.”
In the workplace, self-reliance means answering your own questions and not relying on a supervisor for guidance at every turn. Self reliant workers will exhaust the resources already available to them before turning to another person for help. By virtue of their seniority, team leaders often have no choice but to be self reliant, but it’s a quality that can be embodied by any employee regardless of their position in your organizational hierarchy.
2. Centrality of Work
The second dimension of the MWEP asks how central a role work plays in a person’s holistic existence. Someone who scores high on centrality of work prefers to spend the vast majority of their time working and will strongly agree with statements such as, “Even if I inherited a great deal of money I would continue to work somewhere.” People who score high on centrality of work probably don’t adhere to what experts prescribe as a healthy work-life balance, and they might even take pride in that fact.
When considering how this dimension of the MWEP relates to millennials work ethics, keep in mind that the generation is famous for their strong endorsement of work-life balance — meaning their overall scores on the MWEP might be brought down by this dimension.
3. Hard Work
People often confuse discussions of work ethic for discussions of how hard a person works — but according to the MWEP, the latter is only one component of the former.
The MWEP describes hard work as a person’s belief in the inherent value of work, as well as the rewards one can expect as a result of it. This dimension is assessed by asking how strongly people agree with statements like, “By simply working hard enough, one can achieve their goals.”
If millennials work ethics are as weak as stereotypes say, one might infer that the generation collectively tends not to endorse the concept that hard work is an overall reliable route to one’s goals.
The leisure dimension of the MWEP asks how strongly people agree with statements like, “Life would be more meaningful if we had more leisure time.” Of course, there is a great deal of variation in how people define ‘leisure time.’ If you leave your day job and immediately get started on work for a side hustle (as 50% of millennials do), is that leisure time? The answer is up to personal interpretation.
This means that the way the MWEP assesses millennials work ethics might be largely skewed by the way each individual defines leisure. It turns out, this open-endedness does make a significant impact — but we’ll come back to that later.
5. Morality and Ethics
According to the MWEP, another dimension of an individual’s work ethic is the importance they see in leading a just and moral life. This dimension is assessed using statements such as, “It is never appropriate to take something that does not belong to you.” This statement translates into the belief that employees who don’t work hard enough for a title, promotion, or other privilege simply don’t deserve it.
This directly relates to the idea that since millennials typically don’t put in the same amount of early-career overtime as their older coworkers, they haven’t earned equivalent accolades. Millennials do seem to have a unique understanding of what is “rightfully” theirs in the workplace: one report found that millennials believe they should be promoted every two years regardless of performance. Stereotypical millennial attitudes seem potentially aligned with a weak work ethic.
6. Delay of Gratification
This dimension of the MWEP has to do with how willing a person is to wait for a reward, and how much value they see in earning things not immediately attainable. It is assessed using statements such as, “A distant reward is usually more satisfying than an immediate one.”
Thanks to modern technology, millennials are accustomed to a fast-paced world with rewards that come quickly. It’s logical to speculate that as a result, millennial work ethics will plummet when they don’t receive frequent rewards. On the other hand, wanting real-time rewards and recognition isn’t exactly the same thing as the inability to pursue long-term goals. When it comes to millennials’ work ethics on the delay of gratification dimension, the results could go either way.
7. Wasted Time
The final dimension of the MWEP has to do with how comfortable (or uncomfortable) an individual is with wasting time — and specifically, their own time. The scale asks how strongly people agree with statements such as, “I try to plan out my workday so as not to waste any time” and “I constantly look for ways to productively use my time.”
Like many of the other dimensions of the MWEP, these statements leave room for a lot of interpretation. Definitions of “wasted time” might vary greatly from person to person and from generation to generation. Not surprisingly, this subjectivity has a real impact on the results the MWEP produces.
How Different Generations Compare
Now that we’ve outlined this comprehensive, scientifically validated tool for quantifying work ethic, it should be easy to compare millennials’ work ethics to other generations — or so it would seem.
One study by management experts from across the United States set out to do just that. Researchers had a plan to run three different generations through the MWEP and compare results. Despite the abundance of anecdotal discussions of millennials’ work ethics versus other generations’, nobody had actually conducted this kind of systematic comparison.
The results the study turned out were far more complex than researchers expected: Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials don’t just differ when it comes to work ethic — they differ in their very conceptions of what work ethic is.
How did such a straightforward study uncover such complicated findings?
In the interest of producing the fairest and most thoughtful multi-generational analysis possible, these researchers took the precautionary step of assessing something they refer to as “measurement equivalence.” Measurement equivalence is a fairly technical statistical analysis used to assess whether different groups interpret the same questions the same way.
Unexpectedly, these analyses revealed that for all but one of the seven MWEP dimensions, millennials understand the questions quite differently than their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts. In fact, the researchers ultimately concluded that measurement equivalence was so low, generational differences in MWEP scores are more likely due to different interpretations of the questions than actual differences in work ethic.
This means that while employers have been busy talking about whether millennials’ work ethics are better or worse than the work ethics of employees from previous generations, they really should have been discussing whether the millennial concept of work ethic is comparable at all.
How to Respond
It’s interesting to know that millennials conceptualize work ethic differently than other generations, but knowing how to proactively respond to that information is a little less clear.
As an employer, your top concern should always be ensuring that your entire team — including Baby Boomers, Gen X, and millennials — works hard and works well together. The workforce’s interpretation of work ethic is in flux, and a lot of research remains to be done before anyone can draw a clear conclusion about which generation “wins.”
Far more productive than pitting different generations against one another in competition over a poorly defined concept is supporting work ethic-adjacent factors that make direct, meaningful contributions to organizational success. As an employer supporting employees of many generations, there are two big things you should focus on:
When people talk about work ethic, they often mean to talk about how much work an individual gets done. By now you understand that these two things are not the same, but bolstering employee productivity is an excellent idea nonetheless.
Productivity refers to how much time your employees spend focused on tasks related to their roles while at work. A great way to support employee productivity is through platforms that hold your team publicly accountable. These can be as simple as a shared goal tracking document or as refined as team management software. Another great way to support productivity is through rewards and recognition — studies show that companies with great employee recognition programs see a direct increase in productivity. Simple measures like these are effective for driving the kind of contributions that many employers would hope to see as a by-product of strong millennial work ethics.
2. Employee Engagement
Another factor frequently associated with work ethic is employee engagement. Employee engagement refers to how invested your employees are in the work they perform every day. It has to do with the ownership they take in their projects and their willingness to go the extra mile for team or company success. To measure engagement, you can use a confidential internal survey. To boost participation, begin by establishing strong company core values and supporting quality communication between managers and their respective teams. Like productivity, employee engagement is a factor that is highly related to work ethic, but far more straightforward to support.
Although we are a long way from truly understanding millennial work ethics — or work ethics at all, for that matter — there are so many immediate steps employers can take to support millennials in the workplace.
Rather than focusing on which generation has the best work ethic, leaders should practice supporting tangible contributions to company success. Every part of your workforce is contributing to the same team, and the better you can support their progress towards shared goals, the stronger your company will be.
Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.