Millennials: Free Spirits -- or Workaholics?

New research suggests many millennial workers are afraid to take vacation -- even though they place a high value on work-life balance.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016
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Stereotypes portray millennial workers as self-absorbed slackers. But new research instead suggests many are workaholics who will put in long hours to win approval from the boss.

A survey by the travel-industry trade group Project Time Off, together with other data, also disputes the notion that millennials won't stay long with any employer. All it takes to keep them, experts say, is recognizing how they differ from older workers.

"People really do have this deeply ingrained assumption that it is an entitled generation," says Katie Denis, a senior director of the U.S. Travel Association who leads Project Time Off. But "if you look at the totality of their experience, you see something very different," she says. Millennials "do have a desire to grab a job, hold a job, prove themselves."

Project Time Off aims to encourage more Americans to use their vacation time, often pointing out that downtime helps both employees and their organizations. Its latest survey, conducted by the marketing research firm GfK, drew on the views of more than 5,600 full-time adult U.S. workers of all ages.

The key finding: 43 percent of millennials met the definition of a "work martyr," compared to 29 percent of respondents of all ages. That means they resist taking vacation because they think their work won't get done, because they want to show dedication or because they would feel guilty leaving the office behind for a few days.

The survey result is supported by some other research, including a 2014 survey by the advertising agency DDB. That survey found millennials more apt to describe themselves as workaholics -- 44 percent, compared to 35 percent of baby boomers and 41 percent of GenXers. And Census data also dispute the widely-held view that millennials are more apt than previous generations of young people to change jobs. As Ben Casselman of the news site FiveThirtyEight noted last year, job-hopping among workers ages 22 to 29 has actually declined since the 1990s.

But all of this appears to conflict with widespread evidence that millennials are less happy at work than older workers. A Gallup survey this year, for example, found that only 29 percent of millennial workers describe themselves as "engaged." The figure was 33 percent for boomers and 32 percent for GenX respondents.

People who study millennials or consult with companies about the issue say there's no conflict. While noting that broad generalizations about a whole generation must be used cautiously, they say both identities -- work martyr and disengaged employee -- are part of the same picture.

In reporting long hours, "what they're describing is how they have to be at work, versus what they'd like to be," says Joan Snyder Kuhl, an author, consultant and speaker on issues involving millennial workers. "Those are two different things."

Many feel forced to fit into a traditional corporate culture even though they prefer flexible schedules and would rather be measured by performance, not hours they spend at a desk. One result of that conflict: disengagement.

"When you're in that early phase of your career ... there's a tendency to do what everyone else does, for fear of losing your job," Kuhl says. "That's why they aren't taking vacation. They don't know how to push for the flexibility they want."

Kuhl is co-author, with Center for Talent Innovation CEO Silvia Ann Hewlett, of a new study titled Misunderstood Millennial Talent: The Other 91 Percent. It argues that most millennials are far more likely to stay on the job than employers realize.

One key reason, Kuhl says, is that they bear financial burdens that earlier generations of young people didn't. They graduated into a historically bad economy and often struggled to get work. They are more likely to have big student-loan balances. And many are marked by the psychic scars of growing up in a wrenching recession.

Many HR professionals believe millennials are a "flight risk," Kuhl notes. With that perception, employers are unlikely to invest in these workers, she says. But "the truth is, our study found the overwhelming majority of millennials are sticky. They aren't looking to leave, mainly because they can't afford to be flighty."

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What should employers do? One key step, experts say, is to recognize how much millennial workers value schedule flexibility. Part of this is the value these workers place on maintaining a healthy work-life balance. And part is that they grew up with technology that allows them to be connected to work around the clock.

"Businesses have a key role to play in encouraging loyalty among this crucial generation of workers, particularly through demonstrating an understanding of millennials' desire for better work-life balance," says Jeff Schwartz, human capital consulting leader and a principal with Deloitte Consulting. Deloitte's own 2016 survey of millennials found a critical step for retaining these workers is for employers to "identify, understand, and align with millennials' values."

It's dangerous for employers to lock these young employees into a 9-to-5 regimen for no other reason than that such a schedule is customary, Kuhl says. "If flexibility and creativity is stifled ... that's a really risky road for companies to walk down."

Millennial workers also crave regular feedback and a meaningful relationship with managers, Kuhl and others note. Supervisors who focus only on productivity and not on helping them grow are shortchanging both their employees and the company.

"If they're just working the hours to work the hours, they're not figuring out how to develop their skills. ... That's not setting a company up for success. And I think we all have a stake in that."

And when it comes to time off, managers need to model good behavior and communicate clearly about expectations, says Denis of Project Time Off.

Young workers know the company policy, she says. But if they don't see managers taking vacation themselves sand encouraging workers to do the same, they will be reluctant to use their time -- and become "work martyrs."

"We need to be setting an example for these people," she says. "If you are a manager, of any generation, think about the message you're sending."

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