Millennial generation seems misunderstood

Michael Cronk is assistant director of career development at Transylvania University
Michael Cronk is assistant director of career development at Transylvania University

Imagine a 15.6 percent unemployment rate. Sounds awful doesn't it? The United States' rate has been about 9.5 percent for the past few months, and it has not been pretty.

But that rate of 15.6 percent unemployment is real — for adults ages 20 to 24.

Even worse, according to a Pew Research Center study, 37 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 are unemployed or out of the work force. The millennial generation, as those born since about 1980 are called, is being hit hard by this recession. And misperceptions about the generation and its work attitudes might be contributing factors.

News articles have been appearing about the millennials for years. Most of the stories have cynical headlines and even more cynical opening lines. For example, a story with the headline "Millennials accused of lax work ethic say it's not all about 9-to-5" opens with the line, "Jared Rogalia, 25, ... is as cranky as someone twice his age when he complains about his generation's work ethic." That appeared in The Washington Post on April 3.

A New York Times story with the headline "What is it about 20-somethings?" that appeared last month opens with this sentence: "Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?"

And a column that appeared Feb. 24, 2008, in The Dallas Morning News was headlined "Millennials need to get real about work world." It opens with: "Millennials. Can't live with 'em. Can't live without 'em. That's what many employers tell me about the youngest generation in the workplace."

Some of the reasons for the cynicism can be found in the same Pew study I mentioned.

Much was made of the fact that the millennial generation did not list "work ethic" as one of the top five qualities that makes it distinctive as a generation. All previous generations had listed "work ethic" as a mark of distinction. Millennials also said that older, rather than younger people had a better work ethic. The conclusion then was that millennials have lax work ethics.

So what is it really about the millennial generation? Is there credence to the idea that they are a new generation that is lazy and unmotivated? Or are they victims of a confluence of events predicated on when they were born?

One way to answer these questions is to look at the same data that the reporters did and realize some of the conclusions are conjecture and not facts.

It is true that millennials did not rank work ethic as a distinctive quality about themselves and that they think older people have a stronger work ethic than younger people, but at no time were millennials asked how hard they work.

It's important to note that the Pew survey was conducted in January. That was in the middle of the recession, during which millennials faced higher rates of unemployment; high rates of underemployment (often in jobs that do not require a degree); are in college or graduate school (because there are few jobs); or are in tenuous career positions, knowing they are on the chopping block because of "last hired, first fired" policies. Given that, why would "work ethic" be a distinctive quality of this generation? They haven't had a chance to work.

There are, of course, differences between the millennial generation and previous ones. As is the case with any generational shift, work attitudes and desires and dreams will differ. To write off a generation before it has had a chance to distinguish itself would be absurd. However, perception often becomes reality, and so articles like the ones above become the reality for corporations making hiring decisions.

Millennials will need to accept some responsibility for rehabilitating their own image. In next month's column I hope to share some strategies to facilitate that rehabilitation. In the meantime, I would love to hear from millennial workers and their employers. What are your thoughts about the work ethic of this next generation? Contact me at