I am writing this article at 8:30pm on a Sunday evening, having spent my entire weekend sat at my desk revising for an exam – I am a Millennial and according to some research I don’t work very hard. The accusation that the younger generation is lazy has always been readily dealt, probably out of concern for changes that may occur when the next generation joins the workforce or due to a lack of understanding for the new challenges that the younger generation faces. The evidence for actual generational differences in work ethic has been mixed but now that three generations have started working together (Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials) there is a need for some solid answers.

Researchers at Wayne State University examined 77 studies that reported work ethic and average sample age. They chose to focus on a particular measure of work ethic – Protestant Work Ethic (PWE). The 7 features of PWE are placing work at the centre of life, the belief that hard work yields successful outcomes, morality/ethics when dealing with others, distain for time wasting, avoidance of leisure activities, ability to delay gratification and being self-reliant. It has long been contested as to whether there are generational differences in PWE.

The study compared 3 generational cohorts: the Baby Boomers born between 1946-1964, Generation X born between 1965 and 1980 and Millennials born between 1981-1999. Each generation shares significant life events that have helped develop a unique personality and set of values shared between members of that generation. For example Baby Boomers were born in times of economic expansion and typically view work as a meaningful part of life that leads to self-fulfillment. Millennials on the other hand, have grown up with more influence from technology and consequently know that they have the freedom to work from anywhere, this may be why they place more value on work-life balance than any other generation.

So what are the results? After 3 phases of hierarchical regression analysis they found no generational differences in PWE. This means that no generation has more of the attributes associated with being hard working than the others.

PWE is particularly relevant to our current work environment as the most common 21st century skills including collaboration, problem solving and the ability to perform non-routine and interactive tasks, require high PWE. For example someone with low centrality of work is less likely to preserve with a problem at work than someone with high PWE who views work as central to his or her life.

The research has many implications for employers. Firstly any company planning to change company practices in order to suit the “very different” Millennial generation is likely to be wasting money. Also seeing as PWE traits are key for the mastery of 21st century skills any programs aimed at building 21st century skills should no longer be concerned with generational differences in PWE. Now that this research group has made the first step, similar studies should follow using data from different countries or focusing on a different form of worth ethic such as the importance of work-life balance or the need for job stability.

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Kate Dearling

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