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Where is the Teenage/ Millennial Work Ethic?

A constant complaint I hear (and sometimes administer) is that the work ethic of the “younger generation” is terrible and anemic.  It may sound like I’m an “old fogie”, but at 40 years old I don’t quite consider myself as part of the elderly.

(Disclaimer:  I realize that not all millennials have a poor work ethic, but this article is focusing on what I would deem as the majority, or at least a strong minority, of that population.)

First and foremost, a definition.  Who are the “millennials”?  They are the main subjects of this oft-heard gripe and perception.  Millennials (sometimes referred to as Generation Y) are loosely defined as anyone born between 1980 and 2002.  Today that would make their age range from 12-34, with the bulk between 16 and 28.  For the purposes of this article, we will focus on this 16-28 group.

Overall the millennial population numbers approximately 80 million, which equates to 25% of the entire U.S.  Many are in high school or college, with many as well in the workforce.

From a personal standpoint, I have been trying to hire a 15-17 year old local kid to mow my lawn for nearly 10 years.  Thus far, I have been mostly unsuccessful.  The only exception to that was about 5 years ago when for half a summer I found a 14 year old girl that was willing to do it.  No teenage boys have been willing to undertake the task.  This is a task (lawnmowing and general yardwork) that I spent much of my high school career doing.  I probably worked for close to 10 different neighbors/people in my town- mowing their lawn on a regular basis.

From a business prospective, the problem goes far deeper.  I am in the construction industry and it is a well-known fact that the “20-somethings” are generally not coming to the trades and the ones that are have a very meager work ethic and desire.   For the trades, this is a huge problem.  Who will be the plumbers and carpenters and welders in 10 years?  This work will still have to be done- by someone.

The concern is a broader societal one.  It naturally reverts back to the question: “Who is guiding these young people?  Who is instilling values and ethics into them?”.   Generally speaking, the following are the main sources of guidance for any teenager/ college student:

  • Parents
  • Friends
  • Culture/ Society
  • Church/ Religion
  • Government
  • School

Let’s take a closer look at each one of these, and see what has been trending over the past couple of decades.

  1. Parents- If we are talking about people age 16 up to 28, then their parents would typically be between 38 and 55. Most of the people in that (parental) bracket that I know seem to be fairly hard-workers. Why then are they raising their children without these same values? (Disclaimer: I do not have a teenager.)
  2. Friends- Clearly it is a mob-mentality, involving peer pressure et al.   When I was in high school, my friends would laugh at me if I did NOT have a job. Today it seems the kids are getting laughed at by their friends if they DO have a job.
  3. Culture/ Society- The culture (including the media) often glamorizes the get-rich-quick mentality, or making money the “easy” way- however that may be.
  4. Church- Christianity is clear regarding the dangers of being lazy or not supporting yourself. There are dozens of verses in Proverbs alone which demonstrate this. (Proverbs 21:25) “The desire of the slothful killeth him; for his hands refuse to labour. “ Of course the problem is that church attendance has been in decline for several decades, so many of the teens that used to receive this ongoing message are not hearing it via church.
  5. Government- The well-meaning “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty” have actually undermined the work ethic of countless thousands of people especially over the past 40-50 years. The local, State, and Federal government have essentially been saying to people “If you don’t work, don’t worry. We’ll take care of you,”. This aid has included subsidized housing, food and heat, as well as regular welfare checks.
  6. School- I’m unsure of how this is trending, but a common-sense anecdote would be that many of the teachers at a high school are themselves young and in this “Millennial” generation. Thus if they as a whole do not express or promote a hard work ethic, their students will not hear or value it.

How do we reverse this or improve the situation?  It will involve ALL of the above guiding lights, in a cumulative and lengthy effort.  It took a couple of decades for this change in work values to happen, and it will take that long to return it to “normal”.  Our American future depends on it.

About Ken

Ken Lambert, D.Min, lives with his wife and twin boys in southern New Hampshire, and has written for a variety of religious and secular publications. He is co-author of Top Ten Most Influential Christians- since the Apostles, and is an adjunct instructor for Agape Seminary (Church History, Wisdom Books).

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  1. Oh wow… this is really an important struggle. If this is what we have to look forward to, the future is not bright at all. Let’s pray for change!

  2. Ken, I recently came across an article that said that fewer people of this age group are working then ever before, many by choice. Some of the ones that ARE working have no idea how the business world operates. I have been around many young people who have had a very arrogant and condescending attitude toward me (65 years of age and in the work force for over 40 years), and who think they know everything the first day on the job. This really is a pathetic problem!

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