In a recent article on Millennials and their perceived lack of effort in the job market, Brett Cenkus argues that our generation is not so much lazy as disinterested in the way things used to be. Abusive job environments, low pay, low stimulation — these are all reasons he cites for this change in perspective. It’s an interesting article, though I think Cenkus is a bit optimistic about how employers can change this dynamic. Why?
For one, I think the roots of Millennial apathy go deeper than Cenkus suggests. Since 1979, the relative value of our wages has stagnated, in part due to the decrease in pay for some professions and the devaluing of college degrees. One study found that only 16% of jobs can keep up with inflation, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that nearly 44% of college graduates are underemployed (i.e., in a job that doesn’t require their degree). We’ve also systematically devalued labor to such an extent that otherwise decent jobs in customer service industries are routinely insulted. You hear stories about the pride people once had in working any job. “I got a job. Yay me.” Now, what we hear is, “Oh, you work there? Well, that sucks.” Couple that with corporations that rake in unimaginable quantities of money while their employees languish in poverty with no real prospects of change, and you’ve got a perfect environment for employment apathy.
Is it any surprise that Millennials aren’t interested in working hard at some of their jobs? Why would you give everything you’ve got for a job that provides no real chance for advancement? That pays too little? That regularly gets shit on by other people? That doesn’t offer good benefits? What incentive do you have to work hard for little real benefit for yourself while some guy who doesn’t even know your name makes millions off your hard work? Are you remotely surprised that so many Americans have little loyalty to the companies they work for? I can’t speak for all Millennials, but I can speak for myself as a member of that group. And from my perspective, it’s not really that surprising that many Millennials have little interest in working themselves to the bone for anything that isn’t their passion. And it doesn’t surprise me that the people who would benefit most from Millennial labor would be so quick to assume that this is the result of laziness.
It’s not that Millennials are lazy. It’s more accurate to say that Millennials don’t see much value in work for the sake of work anymore. Cenkus is right to point out that Millennials aren’t all that compelled by traditional work culture, and that to fix that, companies have to create a more inclusive environment (cross training, more value for employee contributions, etc.). I think that has to do with the idea that in the past, you worked hard because you thought that was what you needed to do; earlier still, you worked hard because you knew it would lead to higher salary, career advancement, etc. Today, that just isn’t as true as it used to be, and I think my generation has caught on to that fact. Now, work is a means to an end, not a source of pride.
I also think it’s worth noting that my generation (and the generation after us) has been instrumental in the creation of entirely new self-employing professions. Many of us have YouTube or Twitch channels. We freelance or start small businesses or do any number of things that don’t pay particularly well but are at least “what we want to do.” And a lot of us will put every last ounce of effort into those things because we’re passionate about them. That passion generally doesn’t always translate to work because so often all we’re doing is working to pay the bills. and if you’re not truly benefiting from your effort, even on some personal level, it’s almost insane to ask anyone to put in extra hours after work or give every last ounce of energy to a job. For me, that translates to my passion projects: podcasting and writing. I don’t make money off The Skiffy and Fanty Show; every dime we make goes to pay for expenses. Hopefully, that will change some day. But I will certainly put a lot more of my time into the things I do for that show than I will into a lot of other things that actually pay my rent. Much of that comes down to passion: I simply care more about what I do for the podcast than I do for some of the aspects of my other jobs. And I’m of the mind that there’s nothing wrong with only using the energy you need to do a job and saving the rest for everything else.
Frankly, I think we should be more surprised that more Americans haven’t calculated exactly how much money they’d need to survive, figured out a way to make that money on their own steam, and then moved off to some rural Colorado town to live the rest of their lives making just the right amount to qualify for public health insurance, doing little else to contribute to the economy. I’m actually surprised that our birthrates haven’t fallen more dramatically, because so many of us are in such precarious financial situations that having children seems almost irresponsible. My guess is we’ll continue to see the decline in birthrates so long as our economy services the wealthy and not everyone. We seem to be having the opposite problem from Europe: many European countries are seeing declines because of general prosperity, whereas we may be seeing declines because of economic stagnation.
There’s also a darker side to this: a small portion of Millennials are just fucking done with it all. They don’t believe in the American Dream anymore, because more and more, they see that it is a lie. They don’t see wages increasing. They don’t see people moving out of their social class. They don’t see their labor valued by society. They don’t see things getting better for most of America. What they see are the wealthy getting wealthier, the poor getting poorer, and the middle class getting gutted. They see millions of young Americans entering a dead-end job market with mountains of student debt, despite doing everything society told them to do. They see politicians talk about tax cuts as though those will significantly improve life with a low-wage job, even as the ultra wealthy get to keep more money than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. They see people dedicating their lives to public service getting shit on left and right, their benefits being destroyed, they’re security threatened. They see healthcare bankrupting people by the thousands and no real political will to fix it.
We should be very concerned by that point of view even if we’re not going to bother lamenting the total devaluation of labor in this country. That level of apathy and distrust in society has serious ramifications for the future of our labor market and for the economy. You can make jobs more welcoming and make employees feel more valued; sure, it’s a seemingly impossible task, since it requires us to change corporate culture entirely. But it’s doable. I don’t know how you convince entire chunks of people to come back to the labor market when they feel so utterly betrayed by their own culture that cutting themselves out of the equation as much as possible seems like the best route. That’s the kind of deep hurt you don’t fix just by changing society. You have to reach those people and convince them they won’t get an ass bite again. That’s a generations-long project.
But maybe there ways to fix those problems. Maybe it’s not too late for Millennials to change things or for other generations to catch up with the world offered up by Elon Musk or Google — corporations with a very different concept of work ethic indeed.
Point is this: Millennials are just different. We don’t value the same things our parents valued — or our grandparents, for that matter. We expect more in a climate that offers too little, and we’re told over and over that this makes us entitled, lazy, and bratty. Really, it makes us realistic: this is the dream we were promised, and some of us just aren’t willing to settle for the craptastic reality on offer.
At least, that’s my view. But what do I know? I’m just a disgruntled Millennial.