A Backwards Millennial Work Ethic

cropped-screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-8-16-39-pmA couple of weeks ago, I was attending one of the several graduation dinners put on for the seniors at my alma mater, since my fiancé was getting ready to graduate. For their keynote speaker, the university selected a 2002 alumna to feed the senior class some encouraging words before they flung themselves off into the unknown, a.k.a. the working world or graduate school. I’d been listening to her speech, half hungry, half bored, when she said the word “millennials.” My ears perked up.

“The other day, I was reading a New York Times article about how cereal isn’t so popular with millennials,” she said. “Guess why? It requires cleaning both a spoon and a bowl. C’mon, guys! We need to work harder than this.”

The audience, which was mostly made up of university patrons, faculty, and parents over 40, laughed, and some applauded. A portion of the rest of her speech was dedicated to chastising millennials for their poor work ethic and encouraging us to do better. She also spoke about how hard she worked during her undergraduate career, including how she spent the beginning of each semester begging the registrar to overload on credits because there were just so many great classes.

I was shocked. Because of this woman’s age, which groups her among millennials, I thought she’d take a different approach. I thought maybe she’d see things from our perspective, acknowledge what we’re up against, refuse to apply a stereotype to however many billion of us there are. Instead, she fell in line with the type of people who feel the need to “apologize” for their generation. She threw us under the bus. It didn’t help that she’d framed herself as an incredibly hard worker. She might as well have been wearing a sign that said “Look at me, the special exception.”

Never mind that she chose to interpret not wanting to wash a bowl and spoon as lazy rather than efficient. Never mind that there are far more nutritional breakfasts out there, so I don’t blame most of my fellow millennials for choosing an alternative. Never mind that eating something that doesn’t require a dish saves water, which is crucial right now, especially if you live in California (where I live, at least for now).

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Real footage of millennial attempting dishes, apparently

If you’ve been on the Internet at all recently, you know how many articles exist purely, or partially, to expose millennials as shitstains who’ve come to blight the Earth. If you just Google “millennials,” two of these articles crop up right on the front page, including TIME’S article calling millennials the “me me me” generation, and an article by The Atlantic about how millennials’ political views don’t make any sense. They use language like “stunted growth” to describe how so many of us live with our parents through our 20s instead of with a spouse. This conveniently forgets that the majority of millennials have to spend years paying off tens of thousands of dollars of debt for a degree most of the work force demands we have, and implies that deciding not to marry is a sign of underdevelopment. They call us “lazy” because 40% of us under 23 don’t want jobs with more responsibility, without taking unpaid labor into account (housekeeping, raising children, etc.). Any chance that these 40% could’ve been single parents, or struggling artists who don’t want their day job taking away from honing their craft? Or that they’re full-time students, as a large population of Americans between the ages of 18-22 are?

But I’m not here to dismantle every single anti-millennial argument on the Internet. I want this blog post to focus more on my own anecdotes.

I’m 23. I work two part-time jobs, despite the fact that, if I wasn’t fiscally responsible, I could live off my savings account from my acting career for a while (until it quickly dwindled to nothing). I’m privileged not to have any loans to pay off from college, thanks again to those acting years. When I’m not at work, I’m keeping up with publishing and book communities, or working on this blog, or writing a novel, or researching literary agents to query a different novel. The people in my life regularly tell me to give myself a break, slow down, lower my expectations for myself.

And that is really, really hard to do when the world is constantly telling me I’m lazy.

Throughout my working years, I’ve pushed myself too hard. During production of The Pacifier, which was filmed in Canada, my mom was only able to visit from home for about a week. She said goodbye and left for the airport right before I was supposed to film a scene. I probably could have requested ten minutes to myself or whatever before I did anything on camera, but instead, I wiped away my tears and stubbornly went through with the scene. During Cheaper by the Dozen 2, I almost collapsed from heat stroke, even though I kept insisting I was fine (thanks again to Bonnie Hunt for pulling me over to the medics despite my protests). During Hannah Montana, while filming a fainting scene, I told them I could do the stunt without a mat to fall on, and ended up pulling a muscle in my neck.

I didn’t learn from this as I grew older. During college, I took on more and more every year. By the time I was a senior, I was working two jobs (one of which was co-running a newspaper), tackling two senior projects (one of which was teaching a class), and, of course, attending classes. I crashed and burned so hard that year I practically never left my room. Once, a friend of mine walked in and found me sprawled on the bed, fighting an oncoming fever, reaching weakly for the reading we’d be discussing in class tomorrow. “I can’t…not finish…the reading,” I told them, panicked. They stared at me and said, “Morgan, you’re not very good at taking care of yourself.”

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Pictured: me

Am I saying that idiots writing articles about lazy millennials are entirely to blame for my over-the-top work ethic? Of course not. It’s mostly my problem. I have a lot of anxiety issues and struggle with accepting anything less than perfection from myself. American society also encourages this kind of work ethic–if you put your work before yourself, then you’re a “good” worker, even if (especially if) you suffer for it (see: most Americans only get two weeks paid vacation time, if they even get paid vacation time).

But do you know who reads these articles? Shares them? Believes them? Countless older employers around the world. Whether they know it or not, they’re subscribing to a set of beliefs about millennials that can (and do) wind up hurting said millennials. And that’s terrifying.

My bosses know little to nothing about how hard I’ve worked throughout my life. When they look at me, they don’t see me almost fainting from heat stroke when I was 12, or me working myself to the bone during my final year of college. They see a young person. My bosses happen to be kind, understanding people, but I couldn’t be sure of this when I first started working for them. I thought, what if they just see me as a millennial? What if the cards are automatically stacked against me because I’m 23?

So I felt like I couldn’t screw up, ever. For someone with my track record, that is a dangerous way to think. And it’s been hurting me.

I’ve had meltdowns over being late to work out of fear that my bosses would think I was a “lazy millennial” and fire me. Ask my fiancé: getting me to take a sick day is like trying to convince a dog to run to the bathroom every time it farts. Once, I went to work sniffling so badly I could barely contain the snot. After two hours of suffering, my supervisor told me to take the rest of the day off. A couple of days later, I returned to work, even though I was still sick. I didn’t want them to think I was taking advantage. I didn’t want them to think I was entitled, or not used to working hard, or that I didn’t care about my co-workers having to pick up the slack while I was gone.

The worst example of this, though, was last week. I suffer from migraines, but until last week, I’d never had one that lasted for longer than a day. Usually I took my medication, went to sleep, and woke up with it gone. So when I woke up with a migraine last Tuesday, I e-mailed my boss and told her I would be coming in late. I took my meds, went to sleep. I woke up and the migraine was still there. I still went to work. And later that day, I went to my evening job.

The migraine ended up lasting four days. When I came to my evening job the second day (my other job was off that day), I was there for ten minutes before my supervisor told me to go home and care for myself. One of my most prominent anxieties during that migraine episode, besides the fear that the migraine would last into my fiancé’s graduation, was all the work I was missing. Not because I absolutely needed the money from those missed hours, but because of the fear that people would perceive me as lazy. I couldn’t handle it. It probably made my migraine worse.

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Yay me

This is happening in workplaces with bosses who I’ve already established are kind and understanding. The amount of anxiety I feel surrounding this phenomenon is bad enough, but what if I was actually dealing with a boss who felt this way about millennials? Plenty of them do. I’m sure lots of people in power enjoying anti-millennial articles apply this to their daily lives and attribute their young workers’ poor performance as tied to their age. If this attitude persists and spreads widely enough, it’ll become even harder for us to get jobs. Our unemployment rate is already at 8.4%, the highest unemployment rate for people of an age where they’re expected to fend for themselves. To compare, the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. is 5%.

I don’t think like the keynote speaker mentioned earlier. I don’t consider myself a “special exception” in my generation because I work myself to death. Hardworking millennials are everywhere. I know so many of them. If you’re an employer and you feel the impulse to write off a young worker who isn’t meeting your standards purely because they’re a millennial, reconsider. There could be a thousand other reasons. Maybe they’re having an off day, as everyone does. If this person is a frequent offender, maybe they’re suffering from mental health issues you don’t know about, or struggling with some other life event. Maybe they really are lazy or taking advantage, and if that’s the case, pursue the problem as you would with any other employee. But it’s not because they’re a millennial. It’s because they, as an individual, hold those traits. They don’t represent their entire generation.

This backwards, consistently-work-till-I-feel-like-I’m-dying mindset isn’t fixed easily, on an individual level or a national one. It’s embedded into our American ideology. At the very least, though, we could give millennials a break. So many of us are working our asses off. I promise we exist. And for those of us who aren’t, do you really need to measure everyone’s worth by how hard they work? Do people not have other valuable traits we can focus on?

Fellow millennials, feel free to share your experiences with this in the comments.

-Morgan

*Avatar by Charlavail

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16 thoughts on “A Backwards Millennial Work Ethic

  1. I don’t know if I am considered a millennial. I graduated high school in 2000. I am stuck living at home again and have been since 2008. I was trying to become a elementary school teacher at Towson University. However, while I was completing the first of two internships, I was pulled from the program because the thought I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher. Never mind that I had maintained the required GPA. Never mind that the students were learning and remembering what I taught them. They wouldn’t even give me a chance to redo the internship. However, they gave the chance to another student. I tried appealing the decision but was turned down. This decision came from the same people who threw away a letter without reading it that my dad had written to them. The letter had to do with my internship placement and trying to move it closer to home since I didn’t drive at the time. I had been depressed every now and then after that. However, in 2011, I started taking a class each semester in theatre and film. Even some in writing. I can’t go full time due to money and hour requirements for my job. I am currently paying off 3 different loans. I have car repair payments on my credit card. I have my phone to pay off. My pay sucks right now. Thankfully, since I at least received an Associates Degree in Education from Howard Community College, I am applying to work as a paraprofessional. This will give me better pay, as well as time to work in theatre and film. I still feel depressed every so often but I am trying to think positively about my situation. I am hoping a new job will help. I don’t know if this is what you wanted to hear. I just needed a place to vent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are absolutely free to vent here! It sounds like you’ve been through a lot, and that you were also treated unfairly. It doesn’t sound like their business practices were very ethical. Maybe it’s better that you left that place, since things seem to be looking up for you more now. I hope things keep improving for you and that you’re able to find a situation that works for you! Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  2. This is so interesting and definitely something I have experienced before. I am also 23 and graduated from college last year. I am highly sensitive and get tired really easily so I just can’t do the same amount of stuff that many people can just by my nature. It’s not that I don’t want to–I just don’t have it in me. I just got back from six months of teaching English in Thailand and was actually planning on staying a year, but was SO exhausted from feeling constantly over-stimulated in a completely different culture, having to be prepared and ready for class each day, and trying to keep up with friends I had made in the ESL teacher certification course I took who were now all placed in completely different parts of the country–that I decided it was in my best interest to come back home. Nothing made me feel better in Thailand than coming out of an amazing class at the end of the day, but my teaching was suffering from not being happy in my situation abroad, which made me super self-conscious, and probably only contributed to my lack of well-being there.

    It took me a long time to admit to myself that staying wouldn’t be in my best interest and part of that was this worry that people would judge me for giving up because I had told soo many people that I was planning on staying a year, if not more. More so, I didn’t want to be disappointed in myself for not staying when I told myself I would.

    I, too, was lucky enough to escape college without loans–something I didn’t ask for, but just kind of happened–and I was an RA on my campus for three years and got free room and board out of that. Because of my situation, I was able to save up a lot of money in college and I financed getting to Thailand entirely by myself, something I’m really proud of. Yet, there’s still that part of me that worries that people think I’m not driven because I chose to go to Thailand instead of getting a “real job” (as if teaching ESL isn’t a real job as it is…it’s a really hard job!).

    Now, I’m back at home living with my parents trying to figure out my next step and I feel that pressure back on me. My hairstylist asked me rather reproachfully when I went to get a hair cut a couple weeks ago, “Is your Mom paying for this?”, which stung a little bit because I could tell she thought there was something rather irresponsible about going to Thailand in the first place and now living back at my parents’ house. I have the money to pay for my own haircut, thank you, even if I’m currently unemployed (for the time being) and living at home. It’s hard not to get defensive about your choices (and it’s also really easy to question them) when people treat you like that.

    I think the problem that we’re experiencing as millennials is that so many of us feel there are other ways to be successful than through the “usual route” (i.e. either going right from college to graduate school or getting a 9 to 5 job right after graduation). It’s not that I’m lazy–I do get tired easily, yes, but I also value a different lifestyle than the one that was pushed down our throats from the beginning. I’m looking to relocate to experience a different part of the country and am hoping to get a 9-5 job there for the time being to make some much needed money, but I’d really like to sustain myself through writing or some other means that will allow me a bit more freedom later on.

    The other problem is that I think it’s so easy to be turned off from this “usual route” when it’s almost impossible to get a good job out of college unless you have two or three internships (probably unpaid) on your resume. Also, we’re expected to know what we want to do by the time we graduate college–really, actually, two or so years into college so we can pick the right major. It’s frustrating for me because I’m realizing for myself that there isn’t one job that I’m passionate about doing for the rest of my life–and I wonder who’s going to want to hire me if I don’t seem committed to a field. So then, it seems to me like the system is almost set to work against so many of us who realize we don’t have that passion for one career or those internships under our belts.

    It’s all a matter of perspective; there are so many ways to work hard and the fact that many millennials are hesitant to subscribe to the one they’ve been told to subscribe to or simply don’t have the experience under their belts to obtain that lifestyle (not necessarily because they’re lazy but because they couldn’t have supported themselves on that necessary, unpaid internship) puts us in a bit of an awkward and, quite frankly, unfair position.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First of all, good luck to you in everything, especially considering that you’re in an in-between space right now and not entirely sure where to go from here. I hope you end up in a situation that makes you happy!

      I’m really glad you shared this, because this is a great example of the kind of millennial story I was talking about. Props to you for going to Thailand after school and saving the money yourself. Anyone who tells you teaching ESL in Thailand for several months isn’t a “real” job is wrong, because wow, it’s incredibly brave to go to a different country, surrounded by people who don’t speak your native language, and help people develop a skill. It also makes total sense to me that you’d get burned out and come back early. People underestimate the toll that culture shock can take on a person. When I studied abroad, I chose Dublin, Ireland because I didn’t want the challenge of learning a completely new language on top of my studies (in other words, I wasn’t as brave as you in this respect, haha). I did visit non-English speaking countries, including Switzerland, Germany, and France, and I felt overwhelmed by that even during the short periods I spent in those places. I imagine being surrounded by it all the time is even more intimidating.

      I also totally understand the feeling that you failed because you didn’t reach the goal you set for yourself. I think it’s important for us to remember that sometimes, goals you set can be arbitrary. I do this a lot to myself and it winds up hurting me more often than not. For example, at my alma mater, we had an optional semester called May Term in which you take one intensive class for a month. I stubbornly wanted to take May Term in my senior year because I didn’t want to miss my last May Term. As time went on, though, it became clearer and clearer that I needed to get out of school, because my mental health was slipping. I stubbornly held onto the May Term idea for much longer than I should have. What ended up happening was I decided not to do May Term only three weeks before it started. I could’ve saved myself a lot of stress if I’d decided not to do May Term much earlier. You probably did the best thing for yourself by leaving Thailand early. Your mental/emotional health is important. It’s always good to try, of course, and not to give up easily. But it sounds like you did try and didn’t give up easily, so I’d try not to be too hard on yourself about it, if you can 🙂

      And I agree: the system is designed for some people and lets other people slip through the cracks. Our most practical choice as individuals, really, is to find ways to live within the system (though dismantling the system would also be nice, if we had something viable to replace it with). From what I’ve heard, having two or three careers throughout your life isn’t completely impossible, so maybe it’s something you could do if you wanted to.

      Lastly: unpaid internships should burn in hell. Seriously. It’s labor. People should be paid for their labor, period.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s totally normal to have 2 or 3 or more jobs throughout your life. Some of us will never have the “right” job, and that’s okay. My sister, who is 27 years old, majored in international relations, has had at least four jobs, and her current job has nothing to do with her major. She was never fired, but she moved from one job to another, and she’s one of the hardest working people I know. Having multiple jobs is fairly common and not something to discount or be ashamed of.
        Honestly, my “dream job” is being a stay at home mom. Whoever says that that’s not really work has probably never been around kids for more than five minutes. Anyways, I can’t really just make that happen, so meanwhile I will have to find a career. But the system (and our culture) says that I should find my worth in my career, and that I’m wasting my college degree if I don’t. All I want is to find a job that I enjoy and can live off of as long as necessary.

        I agree, unpaid internships are dumb.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Being a stay-at-home mom is *definitely* a job, and a hard job at that. When I mentioned unpaid labor in my post, I was mostly thinking of that. Having kids is a full-time job all on its own, and you’re “never off the clock,” to quote my mom. People really undervalue how much work it takes, which probably has something to do with the fact that it’s considered “women’s work.”

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  3. Hi Morgan,
    I am a student at your alma mater (well, I graduated this year as well, but I’m still doing Mayterm and thus consider myself still a student there). While I know it can be annoying to read those blogs about us “lazy millennials,” I think it’s important to look at things from the perspective of our parents and grandparents. For many of our grandparents, they were already married and well into the workforce with at least one child by age 25. As the years go by, it seems that adolescence has extended into our 20s in that many of us expect to have things handed to us. I know that I am making a huge generalization there–and I am not exempt from that statement either. I have been extremely privileged to have parents who paid for my college. Although their desire was to give me a good life, my parents ended up spoiling me, and I do sometimes expect things I shouldn’t. I can see how other people look at me and think I am spoiled and entitled. However, I understand that my experience is not representative of my generation. I know that many of my peers are more hardworking and less privileged than I am. Unfortunately, people tend to remember negative things. People are going to remember that I’m a spoiled, entitled brat, but they’re not going to remember that you’re a sweet, hardworking individual. That’s just how our brains are. Keep working hard, and don’t get discouraged by people who treat you poorly because of your age. Also, don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself a bit. I know I have some dirty dishes that have been sitting in my room for way too long….

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    1. Hi Nicki,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Thank you for acknowledging that your experience is not representative of our generation, as well as that the idea that we “expect to have things handed to us” is a generalization. It is, and it is one of the harmful stereotypes I was talking about. Generally, when I hear people say that we all expect to have things handed to us, it is an unfounded accusation, and there’s no data to back it up. This next thing is anecdotal, of course, but most people I know from this generation to not have that expectation. Many of them are terrified of entering the workforce because they understand people do *not* just have things handed to them, and many of them feel helpless because they are forced to live with their parents due to financial circumstances.

      I have little sympathy for parents and grandparents who expect us to be married/have children by age 25 because they refuse to look at things from our perspective. That would be like me judging them for their life choices because I refused to look at things from their perspective. For instance, my mom got married for the first time when she was 20. Based on my own experiences growing up in the 90s/2000s, do I think that is generally a wise choice? No. Do I judge my mom for it? Absolutely not. I understand that times and expectations were different. My problem is that many older people are not willing to extend this same understanding to us and apply their own life expectations to ours when a lot has changed. Nowadays, not being married with kids is not seen by many as a sign of underdevelopment. Many interpret it as wanting to use your 20s to explore yourself, get a career started, etc. before you start a family (or just that you’re someone who doesn’t want to pursue marriage and a family). This might sound harsh, but like I said in my post, everything from our mental health to our careers are at stake here. I don’t want that being jeopardized just because some older people in power refuse to see things from our point of view.

      I’m a little confused by the advice that I shouldn’t be afraid to laugh at myself. It might’ve been well-meaning, so maybe I’m reading into the tone too much. This post had nothing to do with laughing at myself or taking myself too seriously. I have no idea if you follow me on my various social media accounts, but I’m guessing you don’t, because if you did, you’d see I laugh at myself/make jokes at my own expense quite often. I also think you can discuss this issue without having to mention laughing at yourself.

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      1. Hey Morgan! I want to clarify what I said about older people. What I meant was that it can sometimes be helpful to see things from their perspective and understand why they have the expectations they do. Of course, I shouldn’t say that all older people have this expectation–that would be a generalization too.
        I apologize for being kind of condescending with my comment about laughing at yourself. This is the first blog I ever read of yours, so I wasn’t really familiar with your writing. After I commented on this, I read some of your other posts and found them really insightful. I wasn’t at the graduation function that you mentioned, but I understood from your writing that the woman’s comment about young people eating less cereal was meant to be a joke. I found it funny because I know that I and other young people I know dislike doing dishes, so I was a bit surprised that it offended you. However, like I said, I wasn’t there, and I’m sure that there are many other jokes that you might find funny but offend me. My comment was well meaning, but I could have made it without the condescension. I apologize for that.
        Thanks for being willing to converse with me!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Nicki,

    Thank you for your clarifications, and for your comments about my other blog posts. I really appreciate you reading and letting me know what you thought of them 🙂

    It was meant to be a joke, and I might’ve found it funny if it was the first of its kind I’d heard, or if she was talking about how *everyone* is lazy about dishes sometimes, not just millennials. But the more criticism I see of our generation, the more insidious it gets, and I not only get more irritated by it but also angrier, because of how this stereotype can cause real harm (personally as well as professionally). Also, nowadays, it’s an incredibly lazy joke to make, since it’s so common. It’s thoughtless and dismissive.

    Thanks again for your comments!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think this stereotype can largely be blamed on the fact that millennials value different things than the generations that preceded us. We don’t crave stability as much as we crave purpose, and purpose is less quantifiable than a good, steady job. While we may feel validated in what we are doing, we don’t look validated. So the older generations are getting concerned.

    I quit my first job when I decided I wanted to be an author because I realized that particular job was hindering me in the creativity department. A fifty-some-year-old coworker approached me spouting statistics of how few people actually “make it” in the writing world. I wasn’t offended even though it was rather abrasive because I realized it was coming from a place of genuine concern. Still, it’s a little annoying every time I bump into him and he asks me if I’m starving yet. (Especially since my part-time waitress gig pays better than my full-time nonprofit gig. How’s that for irony?)

    The articles you’re referring to are abrasive without the personal touch of concern, which makes them harder to swallow. I think we all could afford to be a little more understanding of one another’s worldviews.

    Also, am I the only one who finds it hysterical that the older generations will not accept any responsibility for us millennials? If all of us really are selfish, entitled brats, who made us that way?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are all such insightful points, especially about the generations valuing different things. It can be really tough when someone advises you against following your dream and you can tell it’s out of concern. On the one hand, it’s comforting to know someone’s looking out for you, while on the other hand, it can feel like a lack of support for the kind of person you wanna be (your former co-worker consistently asking you if you’re starving yet, though, is pretty annoying). I think it’s awesome that you’re pursuing your dream and that you’re finding other means of supporting yourself in the meantime.

      And yeah, I hadn’t thought about the fact that older generations raised us and aren’t taking responsibility, hah! That is ironic.

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