The stereotype of the millennial is a 20-something who is lazy, self-absorbed, self-entitled and soft. Joel Stein wrote a cover story for Time magazine three years ago, describing millennials as narcissistic, pointing to evidence, such as the high incidence of narcissistic personality disorder among young people, relative to the older generation.
This article caused quite a stir, signalling to parents that they, and society at large, had molly-coddled Generation Y a bit too much, stunting their growth as responsible, self-reliant and well-adjusted adults.
But this piece in Time magazine, and the negative stereotype of millennials it pushed caused some backlash. For example, Elspeth Reeve, writing for The Atlantic pointed out that Stein’s use of the data on narcissism is disputable, and stressed how the youth have always been thought of as self-obsessed. There has always been an element of older generations not quite getting ‘the youth of today’, harking back to how things used to be done, which translates into how things should be done. There is some truth to this.
Perhaps there is also some truth in the argument that Joel Stein was making. Selfie sticks could be a sign that millennials are more self-obsessed than any previous generation. Generation Y seems to be attached to their smartphones as if they were a newly grown appendage. Millennials use the Internet and social media more than anyone else. Even millennials admit that they are a narcissistic generation, even though they hate being told so by others.
Of course, this stark rise in self-obsession could not have happened without the rise of social media. Disclosing information about yourself is intrinsically rewarding, so it’s no wonder that the people who grew up with social media use it the most because they get the most pleasure out of it. Facebook hijacks the reward system in our brains, and what we are left with is a generation obsessed with self-promotion.
Perhaps millennials are a bit self-obsessed. But the stereotype of the millennial as lazy, like a stubborn child unwilling to work; moaning, groaning, complaining, and throwing a temper tantrum – I’m not so sure this is a fair appraisal of millennial attitudes. Millennials are not averse to work. They just can’t stand work that is meaningless. This is not laziness. Laziness would be a dislike of work in general. Specifically disliking work that is pointless, unsatisfying – or even ‘soul-destroying’ (a phrase quite often used) – seems more to reflect a generational shift in values, as opposed to moral decay.
There are many indications that it is meaning that millennials care about, not hard work for hard work’s sake. Some individuals might turn this search for meaning into idealism and navel-gazing. But this is a minority. The majority – those who constitute the cultural shift – apply themselves diligently to work in order to lead a meaningful life.
As a case in point, take the rise of ‘digital nomads’. These are workers who travel around the world, working remotely, usually in more affordable locations such as Bali, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Hungary, Czech Republic and Romania.
(Digital nomadism is often conflated with being truly location-independent – that is, being able to work remotely anywhere in the world. Being able to work remotely in Sydney, London and New York is something that only a small section of digital nomads can afford to do.)
What the rise of freelancers and digital nomads shows is that millennials are more interested in a work-life balance than the traditional 9-to-5 grind. It’s hard work to get to the point where you can be a digital nomad. And many are willing to risk a range of problems and downsides in order to maintain the lifestyle.
Millennials are obsessed with travelling and in order to incorporate travel as an integral part of their lives, they are willing to make sacrifices, start a new life on the other side of the world, and deal with all the stresses that come with it. I would hardly call this laziness.
Millennials are not job-hopping because they are slackers, but because they are afraid of being stuck in a job they hate. This is not to say that everyone can do a job they love. This isn’t realistic. But striving to get the job you really want, or a desirable work-life balance is not delusional or lazy. It is a realistic goal for a lot of people.
Doing a job you hate can be worse for your mental health than being unemployed. Indeed, there seems to be a growing, collective sense of discontent among millennials about getting stuck in a miserable job. This is illustrated by the fact that they feel disengaged with what they perceive as meaningless work.
Commuting day in and day out, to a dreaded work environment, carrying out mundane tasks, and micromanaged to the point of ill health is being seen as a wasteful way to spend a short life. Millennials have different priorities in life compared to their parents. Meaningful work is seen as much more valuable than traditional indications of success, such as savings, promotions and homeownership.
Laziness is defined as the quality of being unwilling to work. But this doesn’t really capture what millennials are about. Millennials want challenging work infused with meaning, purpose, value, community and the opportunity for self-improvement. This is something that working culture will have to catch up with.