The Myth of Gen Y Laziness: Did We Drink the Kool-Aid?

Last Updated Apr 13, 2010 8:03 AM EDT

The Myth of Gen Y Laziness: Did we Dink the Kool-Aid?If you have any interest at all in generations in the workplace, there's one stereotype you're sure to have come across: Gen Y, sometimes called the Millennials, are lazy. The Washington Post recently reported as much and a Pew survey even found that more than half of Gen Y report that their own generation has less work ethic than their elders. What's up with those findings?
Writing on the HBR Conversation blog, Erica Williams takes a stab at explaining why we would insult our own work ethic in this way and comes up with four possibilities.
  • What is work ethic anyway? The definition of work ethic (which isn't provided in an open-ended question like the ones asked by Pew) is arguably different from generation to generation as the definition of work itself changes. Several of the traits that the Millennial respondents did list as the most generationally distinctive, such as "technology use" and "smarter," are inextricably tied to how we work. Perhaps there's an existential "It's all work/none of it's work" filter at play here.
  • It's a recession. Many Millennials couldn't work right now if they wanted to. According to the report, 37 percent of 18â€"29-year-olds are unemployed or out of the workforce, the highest share among this age group in more than three decades. Does this mean that we have poor work ethic? Of course not. It means that we have inherited an economy that isn't ready to receive us. This might account for why we don't tie our identity as a generation to our work.
  • We respect our elders. The Pew report says so repeatedly. It explicitly lays out our respect for our parents and states that Millennials have a "gentler" generation gap than others. Perhaps, then, we view our comparative work ethic accordingly.... Despite what society says, trust me: we aren't nearly entitled enough to characterize our own work as better or more principled than the grandparents who laid the foundation for who we are and how we live. Perhaps this ranking wasn't so much an indictment of our own values but instead, a respectful affirmation of theirs.
  • We drank the Kool-Aid. Maybe -- just maybe -- even Millennials have bought into the stereotype that we don't work as hard.... Despite the hours of studying, classes, shifts, volunteering, and blogging, despite the number of 45-year-old bosses that shove their work and responsibilities off on us and take the credit and the salary...Perhaps in the face of all of the realities telling us that at a minimum we work just as hard -- if not harder and more efficiently and with more heart than other generations, we have begun to believe the ascendant cultural narrative about ourselves.
Which of these explanations -- if any -- are you buying?

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(Image of kid with Kool-aid mustache by plasticrevolver, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.