The Myth of The Poor Millennial Work Ethic: The Reality and What You Can Do About It.

There are 75 million Millennials in the USA (the generation born between 1980 and 2000).  The youngest ones are just turning 20 this year and the oldest are now 40.  They also make up approximately 25% of the global population (1.8 billion people).  If you have employees, then Millennials already are, or soon will be, a part of your workforce.

There are over 52 million articles about Millennials on Google describing their many faults and bemoaning how difficult they are to manage.  They’re considered to be lazy, flighty, disloyal and unwilling to work hard, and are often called ‘entitled’ and ‘The Me Generation’.  Ask anyone who has Millennial employees and they’ll be quick to tell you stories like these:

One young man who “between court dates, gambling and getting high didn’t make it a priority to come to work on time (or at all) and didn’t think it was necessary to inform his supervisor if he’d even be showing up for the day.” [i]

An employee who just stopped showing up for work told his employer that he’d quit when they called to find out where he was.  He’d never said a word to them about this before walking off the job at the end of his shift.  When asked why, he said that it was because he didn’t get a Christmas bonus.  “I don’t even get a Christmas bonus!” the President exclaimed in amazement.  “Where did he ever get that idea in the first place?”

Two months into her employment, a recent college grad gave her colleagues a wave as she went to lunch.  She had secretly cleaned out her desk and later sent a text to the manager saying that she would not be returning to the position due to “stress” [ii]

A new employee had taken a short-term job at an advertising firm took sick leave after just two days.  After numerous calls from HR a family member finally called to explain that due to her ill health she wouldn’t be coming to work.  After 2 more weeks the company finally decided to dismiss her and it was only then that she revealed that the work was too much for her. [iii]

A lack of work ethic is often the biggest complaint.  Traditional management approaches just don’t seem to work with them.  They tend to quit without warning, require an undue amount of recognition, can’t stay off their phones and want automatic promotions every 2 years regardless of performance. [iv]

In reality, Millennials are actually tough, patient, selfless and a generation of workaholics.

Our concept of ‘work ethic’ is a relatively new concept.  It wasn’t a ‘thing’ until about the 16th Century and the first studies of work ethic weren’t conducted until the 19th Century.  The modern definition of work ethic is: someone who places great value on, hard work, autonomy, fairness, wise and efficient use of time, delayed gratification, and the intrinsic value of work itself. [v]

In 2002 management expert Michael J Miller developed the Multidimensional Work Ethic Profile (MWEP).[vi]  The MWEP measures:

  1. Self-reliance
  2. Centrality of Work
  3. Hard Work
  4. Leisure
  5. Morality and ethics
  6. Delay of gratification
  7. Wasted time

In 2010 it was used for the first time to compare the differences in attitude towards work ethic between Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials. [vii]  The researchers also explored whether the three groups interpreted it in the same ways.  As it turns out, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials differ in their very conceptions of what work ethic is. [viii]  Except for Leisure, the majority of MWEP scales were not equal across the three groups and Millennials’ diverged the most.  The authors noted that several other variables, including age, could account for these differences.

Here’s how Millennials are different:

  1. Self-reliance – Millennials don’t want to be micro-managed. Assign them a task, tell them when it’s due, be available to answer questions — and get out of their way.[ix]
  2. Centrality of Work – Millennials don’t want to get paid for just showing up and demand a work-life balance where work provides the means to do other things in life.[x]
  3. Hard Work – Millennials don’t believe that by simply working hard enough work one can achieve one’s goals. [xi]
  4. Leisure – The study found that there were no significant differences surrounding attitudes towards leisure.
  5. Morality and ethics – Studies show that 60% of Millennials believe that they’ll just be able to feel what’s right and that they suffer from clinical narcissism at rates almost three times higher than Baby Boomers.[xii]  It’s not that they’re ‘bent’, their definitions are just different.
  6. Delay of gratification – Millennials are accustomed to instant gratification.  Job commitment plummets when they don’t receive frequent rewards and recognition.
  7. Wasted time – Millennials just want to get the job done, then put it behind them and enjoy life.[xiii]

What all of this means is that Millennials don’t actually have a poor work ethic, theirs simply differs from that of their older co-workers.  Therefore, in order to manage them effectively, one must understand them.

Here are the things that employers need to understand about Millennials:

  • They haven’t been raised to take initiative and see what should be done next.
  • They are not interested in promotion plans years from now.
  • They want a job with purpose and the opportunity to do something meaningful in life.
  • They are more attracted by intangible benefits like a friendly work culture, a lack of micromanagement and bureaucracy, sabbaticals, and more, along with some more palpable perks like a cool office space, permission to bring pets to work, or wellness benefits. [xiv]
  • Loyalty to a leaders/boss is the number one reason that they stay.
  • Dissatisfaction with a boss is the number one reason that they quit.
  • They expect to be fired or let go regularly.
  • They want skills and experience that help them improve their career prospects.
  • They want to provide input.
  • They want to know how to advance their career.
  • They want feedback – lots of it and often.
  • They also want opportunities to provide feedback and to be actively involved in the decision-making process.
  • They do not want to be micromanaged.
  • They want flexible hours.
  • They embrace working remotely but prefer working in collaborative, team-based environments and seek individual and team-based recognition.
  • They like to be challenged.
  • They do not like to be bored.
  • They are focused on personal growth and want real-life training.

Millennials bring a non-traditional approach to the workplace and today’s employers tend to misinterpret this as a lack of work ethic.

What employers need to do is ensure that their values, corporate culture and most of all, their expectations are clearly communicated at the outset of employment.  Creating an employer/employee agreement that details employer expectations and employee responsibilities, which is signed by both parties, is recommended.  Employers should also be prepared to provide frequent and ongoing recognition and feedback to Millennial employees and offer a work schedule that’s as flexible as possible.  Remember that they don’t expect to be employed for long and are looking for opportunities to add to and hone their skill sets.  Providing new challenges and opportunities will accomplish this and will probably encourage retention.

The other thing that employers should be doing is taking advantage of the hundreds of assessment tools available to help them measure soft skills that go far beyond what job-aptitude tests can provide.  There are many ways for employers to ensure that all new hires bring specific attitudes, share similar visions, have ‘character’ and the kinds of values that they’re looking for.

Assessments like the Employee Attitude and Personality Test or the Work Personality Index will do this.  They help measure an individual’s overall ‘fit’, their ability to follow rules, their trainability, drive, street smarts, leadership potential, tolerance for stress and analytical skills, to name only a few.   Tools like these help employers identify what innate skills and attitudes an applicant already has and also identify where they need mentoring or development.

Employers can also use tools like the Recognition Practices Inventory to gauge what kind of recognition your managers are providing compared to what your employees would like to actually be receiving.  Tools like the Ethical Type Indicator and Business Ethics Awareness can help you identify what you’re getting before you hire an applicant.  Other assessments can measure a candidate’s attitudes towards diversity in the workplace, as well as, identify risk factors such as honesty and potentially counterproductive behaviours that an applicant may bring to the job.

Hiring good people is more difficult than it used to be and the complexities of intergenerational attitudes towards work ethics make it even more problematic for employers.  Being aware of these issues and having a solid pre-screening and onboarding process in place will provide real value, save you time and money, help reduce turnover and increase retention.

Organizations like Creative Organizational Design carry hundreds of reliable, validated screening and skills assessments.  They have decades of expertise and can help you confirm what you already think you know about your applicants and prevent you from hiring other people’s rejects.

Employers who take advantage of resources like these will reap large rewards, benefit from better hires, lower stress levels, and decreased recruitment costs.  Managing people well is always challenging but with the correct foreknowledge, preparation and resources it can be easier and more effective than going it alone.


David Towler is President of Creative Organizational Design, a firm offering nearly 40 years of expertise specializing in employee assessments and which has over 2000 different product titles available.  Creative Organizational Design has 100s of assessment tools designed to help employers screen out other people’s rejects, assess skills, aptitude, attitude and ‘fit’ within an organization. For more information about the options available and help selecting the best tools for your needs please contact us.

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[i] Wanted: Proper Work Ethic And Why Younger Millennials Are Missing It –

[ii] Wanted: Proper Work Ethic And Why Younger Millennials Are Missing It –

[iii] Millennial Interns Need To Get A Reality Check: 4 Horror Stories Here –

[iv] Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation –

[v] A Psychometric Examination of the Multidimensional Work Ethic –

[vi] The Meaning and Measurement of Work Ethic: Construction and Initial Validation of a Multidimensional Inventory –

[vii] Generational Differences in Work Ethic: An Examination of Measurement Equivalence Across Three Cohorts –

[viii] The Truth About Millennials’ Work Ethics –

[ix] Oh, Y, Y … YYYYY? Managing the Millennial Generation –

[x] The Truth About Millennials’ Work Ethics –

[xi] The Truth About Millennials’ Work Ethics –

[xii] Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation –

[xiii] Tips for Keeping Millennial Employees –

[xiv] 8 Reasons Millennials Seem To Be Lazy At Work –

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