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Are Millennials the Workaholic Generation?

Topics: Career Advice
Entitled. Selfish. Young. Snowflake.
lazy millennial
Alvarez/Getty Images

They’re all words commonly associated with what we’ve identified as the Millennial Generation: people born roughly between 1984 and 2004. But not everyone agrees. For example, in a recent post at TalentCulture, Reno Macri argues that millennials, far from being lazy, are actually workaholics.

“Despite common misconceptions, millennials appear to be more workaholics rather than lazy youngsters,” Macri writes. “Their relationship with technology often means they are constantly checking work emails after they’ve clocked off, or first thing when they wake up in the morning.

Could it be that the crop of young professionals so many so easily write off as being lazy and entitled are actually the hardest working generation in recent memory?

Do You Know What You're Worth?

The Need to Achieve

In three weeks, I’ll turn 27, which makes me decidedly millennial. Like many millennials, I grew up by walking a path that had been set for me, a labyrinth trail of achievement and prescribed success. My childhood was sandwiched between the meteoric rise of participation trophies, helicopter parenting, Y2K, and social media. I moved from one schedule block to the next: seven periods a day of structured learning, extended daycare at school, track practice, theater practice, dance class, homework, dinner, homework, TV, computer time, bed. I didn’t grow up with super schedule-y parents, but still I managed to find my way into the black hole of “the plan” at an early age.

At home and school, achievement mattered, and loomed like a shadow throughout my adolescence. At the start of every semester, my dad would ask us half-jokingly if we’d “established dominance” yet — either in the classroom, on the team, or at work. It was a light prod, and solidified a lifetime of performance anxiety, along with a compulsive need to achieve — particularly as an adult.

Today, the prod still stings from time to time, as I’m sure it does for many people both in and outside of my generation. The concept of life and work as something to be dominated and conquered would stay firmly in my mind for the next 15 years.

Should the focus really be on dominating and conquering at work?Click To Tweet

The Millennial Scam

While applying for my first job after college, I struggled to fit into the “CRUSH IT!” culture of Corporate America, but I was determined to make it work. As any scam-artist millennial would do, I faked it until I made it and talked my way into a job as a content creator.

Since then (and in true millennial fashion), I’ve held three other full-time jobs — from a baby boomer’s perspective, an eyebrow-raising number for someone with just five years of professional experience. I’ve also consistently freelanced, holding up a side hustle as a journalist and content creator. Today, as a full-time freelancer and card-carrying member of the Gig Economy, my job-hopping inclination has finally started to feel less like a curse, and more like a super-power.

I’ve stayed busy — too busy, often — but the overexertion has been a blessing in disguise. It’s taught me how to pivot into new opportunities, and how to land on my feet — a skill that eventually led me to move to New York City for a job, decide it wasn’t a great fit two months into the gig, and quit without a backup plan (perhaps my most millennial moment of all). It’s given me an inflated sense of aptitude, a hunger to achieve, a stable social media following, and a chronic case of Imposter Syndrome. Together, the four have made me fairly successful. And a bit of a workaholic.

Do Labels Lie?

Still, I’m tempted to laugh at the notion of the Millennial Generation being the Workaholic Generation. Coming from a white, middle-class, two-parent family in suburban Oklahoma, my food-stamped stint with the Episcopal Service Corps in Boston was the most I’ve known of working to level out financially, and the social justice warrior in me would be ashamed to compare my situation to that of the parents working two or three jobs to make ends meet. The idea alone makes me queasy.

Collectively, the financial burden of my generation — which has overwhelmingly elected to delay traditional “adult” responsibilities like owning a home, getting married, and raising children — feels soft compared to that of, say, someone living in an inner-city environment or a place of rural poverty. That is, until you add in the mind-boggling reality of skyrocketing student debt, the numbers for millennial unemployment compared to overall unemployment, and the effect of inflation on real wages.

Further, any labels feel thin when we try to pin them on an entire group of nuanced, disparate, multi-background human beings with varied work ethics, even if they were all born within a certain time frame.

Are We the Hustle Generation?

Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the unmistakable hustle of my generation — the unwavering need to succeed, be recognized, and shine at all costs.

Undoubtedly, part of this is a product of the aforementioned Imposter Syndrome. (I’m not the only one here. Apparently 70 percent of millennials share these feelings of inadequacy). That, coupled with the prescribed path and the regimented scheduling many of us experienced growing up, has created a work ethic rooted in an obsessive need to perform.

In considering the question of whether or not millennials are workaholics, I’m tempted to say yes. But, I also think there’s more to it than that. As millennials, we’re so used to hitting numbers: hours practiced, criteria for admission, social implications, down payments, tax brackets, likes. Our lives’ success is both outlined and reinforced by data — even if that data lies.

We’re a generation consumed with achieving, accumulating, and owning enough of something to prove that we are something. This insatiable need to have something to show for our efforts inadvertently drives us to overwork. But who could blame us? We live in a time of outsized expectations and a scary reality — an era that allows us to curate image, but demands that we work twice as hard to change our environment.

So, we rise to the occasion. We’ll put in the hours at the office to get ahead, fire off emails in between meetings, stay up late networking our passion projects, and let apps handle the most basic functions of our humanity, like procuring food or building relationships. We’re a window-shopping generation, because the mindless swiping acts like a Fidget Spinner and keeps our hands busy while we focus on other things — like honing our hustle, and blowing our numbers out even further.

The Hustle Generation

Are millennials the workaholic generation? On some level, sure, maybe. But millennials wouldn’t even have any context for that title if it weren’t for the workaholic tendencies of the generations that came before us. Namely, the baby boomers and gen Xers who were promised a silver lining, and worked themselves to the bone in 20+ year tenures to get it, only to find that maybe the juice wasn’t quite worth the squeeze.

Now, for the first time in corporate history, an entire generation aren’t just prioritizing work/life balance — they’re demanding it. Not even because they want to, but because — quite simply — they have to. There’s a lot of residual resentment bound up in that, and it trickles down from the top and lands at the feet of these high-performing millennials who like to jet off monthly and work from the comfort of a beach and get paid what they’re worth. (And yes, I want to get paid what I’m worth). In reality, we’re squeezing just as hard — we’re just doing it more efficiently.

Rather than being the Workaholic Generation, I’m more inclined to call millennials the “Hustle Generation.” Or worse — the “Imposter Generation” — a generation terrified of being found out as less impressive than the person on the other side of the table or office or barbecue or Instagram feed. That pervasive fear breeds determination, and a constant obsession with achievement. In many cases, the two seem quite similar. You could call it the Workaholic Generation, or we could just call it like it is: Millennial.

Tell Us What You Think

Are millennials over-achievers, or lazy and entitled? We want to hear your point of view. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Megan Shepherd
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