I work with a number of business owners whose livelihoods depend on labor, and the labor market is currently undergoing a major transition as the Baby Boomer generation is retiring and the Millennials are taking their place. Many of these owners have worked with their employees for twenty, sometimes thirty years and as they’ve slowly begun to lose them, they are finding it difficult to understand this new generation of employee. I most often hear them lament that the new generation just doesn’t have the same work ethic as the old. But what does that mean? And how are the two generations work ethics different? I’ll first describe my generation, the Baby Boomers, with most of my observations coming from personal experience, and then I’ll attempt to describe the Millennials; my descriptions of them coming mainly from observation and first hand accounts and from reading articles on the subject. Remember, as in all generalizations there are plenty of exceptions to go around, but within the generalizations, there are usually elements of truth.
The Baby Boomer generation perceived work as the primary purpose for their lives, and in fact work defined them. “What do you do?” was a question a Baby Boomer might ask when meeting someone for the first time, rather than “What’s your name?” or “Who are you?” or “What do you believe?” or any other qualifier that describes a person. You were known as a doctor or a lawyer or a librarian or truck driver or teacher or businessman; whatever the profession, it defined who you were.
Your attitude upon starting your job was first gratitude at being offered one, but then it was doing whatever it took to please the boss and do well. If the boss said, “Jump,” your response would be, “How high?” It might be a year on the job before you even thought about asking for time off. Work came before any other considerations. Before family events, leisure time, holidays, family meals, etc. My typical response when asked if I was going to attend any number of extracurricular activities was, “I have to work”. It wasn’t an option. And sick days? Who got sick?
I remember my first career job as an assistant manager at Wal-Mart. I had just been promoted from “management trainee” and was told (not asked) to move, along with my family, to a neighboring state in order to receive the promotion. I had four days to rent a U-Haul, pack up the house, and report to work on Monday morning. I just thought that’s the way things were done and so I did it. And when I worked a stretch of five weeks without a day off, I figured that too was just the way things were done. And staying to close the store until two in the morning and then opening the store four hours later. And working most holidays while the family was at someone’s cookout, and when i finally arrived finding the food cold and everyone else gone home. And the double shifts that started at daybreak and ended at some point after the rest of the world was sound asleep. All expected and never questioned. I had goals in mind and working hard for them was how they were going to be accomplished.
My generation had the idea that if you put in forty years or so of hard work, and diligently saved for retirement, when those forty years were over you could then enjoy your leisure for the remaining years of your life. It was all about accumulating possessions, a pension, a 401-K, stocks, bonds, property, land, and then enjoying them at a later date. It’s the old parable of the grasshopper and the ant. The Baby Boomers are the ant in the story. And now for the grasshopper.
he Millennial’s approach to work is a stark contrast to the Baby Boomers and that causes a major disconnect for the business owners of today. Millennials can take work or leave it. Prior to their first day on the job they present to the boss a list of demands, specific days they need off for a variety of events, and if they don’t have their demands met, they don’t take the job; there apparently being many more where that came from. I’ve heard stories of Millennials asking for a particular day off and when not being granted their request, quitting. For a business owner today, being flexible with a Millennial’s work schedule is just the way things are. In fact, one would probably be better off to let the Millennial write their own schedule. It might ensure they show up to work the next day. Like the grasshopper, they are living for today and don’t have much consideration about tomorrow, let alone forty years down the road. If there’s an upcoming concert to attend and work gets in the way, work will be the first casualty.
And working forty years to earn their leisure? The heck with that. After watching their parents work and slave for that someday, and then that someday never happening, they’ve decided now is the time. Why wait? Millennials want their leisure now. They may not have a pot to pee in, but they will pay five bucks for a Dark Chocolate Melted Truffle Mocha at Starbucks without blinking an eye. And their entertainment comes on the cheap, compared to yachts and golf club memberships and outrageous mortgages. Just find a reasonable place to rent, get Netflix, play fantasy football, and indulge in a couple of tats and who could ask for more? if it can’t be done on a smart device, who needs it? And don’t have any kids. The responsibility of raising children would ruin the carefree life they’ve created for themselves. Whereas the Baby Boomers were all about accumulating possessions, the Millennials are all about experiencing pleasure. Today and not tomorrow. Work does not define them; they leave that to their Facebook profile.
Where will it all end? Who knows? I can’t blame them at all for their approach. If they can maneuver through life with that attitude, who am I to say it’s a fool’s endeavor? After all, I can’t say that my Baby Boomer approach has worked out for me. I often joke to my wife, after observing my anemic 401-K and the only half of what it was ten years ago equity in my home, that my retirement age has now been pushed into the nineties. Or if things change for the better, I can become a Wal-Mart greeter at age seventy-five. Now wouldn’t that be a hoot?