The State of Our Western Work Ethic: Can Younger Workers Turn the Tide?

By Eric Chester

Somewhere along the way, Western culture has lost sight of the virtues that comprise work ethic — the very things that helped build our country.

The pursuit of happiness and the American Dream drove progress and innovation, but they came with unintended side effects. In many cases, for instance, healthy ambition has morphed into avarice. Urbanization and an emphasis on large-scale businesses means fewer and fewer kids are learning about work in the natural course of family life.

Technological advances that make life faster, more fun, more entertaining, and easier to navigate are also consuming our time and energy while eliminating avenues for learning vital concepts about work.

And pop psychologists have pushed parents to focus on building self-esteem in their children, creating at least two generations of “me”-centric workers. The goal, as rockers Dire Straits famously and bluntly sang in the mid-1980s, has become to get your money for nothing and your chicks for free.”

Uniquely positioned to turn the tide

America’s emerging workforce — those in the ­16-to-24 age bracket — finds itself uniquely positioned to turn this tide, both because of its size (50 million by some estimations) and because the young are the most moldable. A transformation back to traditional work ethic — or at the very least an introduction to a traditional work ethic — within this age group will last for decades and influence the workforce and communities in positive ways for generations.

These workers bring some amazing skill sets and personality traits into the labor pool. In February 2010, the Pew Research Center released an extensive report titled “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next” that describes this generation (ages 18 to 29) as “confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change.” It is history’s first “always connected” generation, the report says, and it’s on track to becoming the “most educated generation in American history.”

But this generation doesn’t identify with work ethic. The Pew research found that 61 percent of Millennials say their generation has a “unique and distinctive identity.” That’s about the same percentage you’ll find for other generations, but what’s different are the things Gen Y sees as its distinctive qualities.

In an open-ended follow-up question — “What makes your generation unique?” — work ethic was mentioned as a distinctive characteristic by at least 10 percent in the three older generations — Gen X (ages 30 to 45), Baby Boomers (ages 46 to 64), and the Silent Generation (ages 65 and up). That put it among the top five responses for those generations, and it was number one for Baby Boomers.

It didn’t make the list for Millennials. Millennials said that what made them unique was technology use, music/pop culture, liberal/­tolerant beliefs, greater intelligence, and clothes.

All too often, these bright and ambitious recruits see work as something to avoid or as a necessary evil to endure prior to winning the lottery, landing a spot on a reality television show, or getting a cushy, high-paying job with a corner office and an expense account.

This presents a variety of challenges for those who desire to help young Americans get back to work. For starters, Millennials don’t always want to work. And when they do, their terms don’t always line up with those of their employers.

All too often, the young worker shows up 10 minutes late wearing flip-flops, pajama bottoms, and a T-shirt that says “My inner child is a nasty bastard.” Then she fidgets through her shift until things slow down enough that she can text her friends or update her Facebook page from her smartphone.

The root of the entitlement mentality

Baby Boomers are celebrated for being hard workers. Many brag about the long hours they put in and how they work around the clock. To justify these worka-holic tendencies, the common rationale is “I want to provide the best life possible for my children and give them what I never had.”

In Boomer speak, that translates to much more than providing a nice home, good health care, square meals, and a quality education; it means giving their kids the latest and greatest of everything under the sun. Showering their kids with material stuff not only makes parents feel like their children are keeping pace with the Joneses, but also helps absolve them of the guilt of not giving the children the personal face time they need — something that was lost during the long hours the parents spent working.

Numerous CEOs of major corporations have pulled me aside after a speech and made a confession: “My kids are far lazier than I was at their age.” (It’s as if they want some advice on how to get them motivated to work.)

According to an MTV study of 2,000 young adults ages 14–24, 71 percent of Millennials agree they are “too talented to punch a clock or sit in a cubicle.”

After speaking at an executive leadership conference attended by the top CEOs in the franchise community, Aslam Khan approached me with his cell phone in hand. He had dialed home to speak with his 12-year-old son, Abraham, and wanted me to talk to him.

Aslam came to America from Pakistan at age 30, completely broke and not able to speak any English. In 23 years, he had worked his way from a dishwasher at Church’s Chicken to the franchise’s largest owner, with 153 locations and more than $100 million in annual sales. Aslam was obviously concerned that his son’s work ethic wasn’t as strong as his own, and he thought by spending a few minutes on the phone with Abraham, I could turn the lights on for him.

I didn’t need to talk to Abraham to know why Aslam felt frustrated. Through his tireless work, he had created the kind of childhood for his son that he, himself, never had. Abraham is a bright, well-adjusted boy who does well in school, but Aslam didn’t understand why his son did not inherit his work ethic. But with the privileged life Abraham is living, how could he?

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This is a common tale with entrepreneurs and business executives who tell me how hard they had it when they grew up, and, in contrast, how many times their kids have been to Disneyland or gone on exotic cruises, how many pairs of $100 sneakers they have, etc. “They don’t know how hard I’ve worked for all that stuff,” the concerned parent tells me.

Of course they don’t. The kid is just used to all those things being handed to him.

In other words, he feels entitled to what his parents have provided for him. This is by no means a tale limited to wealthy business owners and executives; it’s also commonplace when talking to engineers, small business owners, teachers, plumbers, and just about everyone else who grew up having to either earn what they wanted or do without.

Fame and fortune as an expectation

It’s no coincidence that reality television and the emerging workforce came of age at the same time. With each feeding off the other, they give credibility to Andy Warhol’s famous prediction that “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

The teen dream of becoming a star — a rock star, a movie star, a football star, an Internet star, a reality-­television star — is now more of an entitlement than an aspiration. The question for many people today isn’t so much whether they’ll get their 15 minutes of fame as when they’ll get it and what they’ll do with it.

In the past, prominence came mainly through high achievement. To attain fame, you had to become the best of the best — the best actor, the best baseball player, the best scientist, the best writer, the best artist, the best politician, the best businessperson, or even the best outlaw.

Now, with hundreds of television and Internet channels begging for content, anyone can become famous for doing something incredibly bizarre, dangerous, weird, or self-deprecating. The bar to fame rests very low, and respect and admiration seldom enter the conversation.

Our culture cultivates this entitlement mentality early on by steering children toward the talents that the world values — signing, dancing, acting, athletics. We have good intentions, of course. If we have a prodigy on our hands, we want to find out early and nurture her so she can realize her full potential. What if little Nicky really is the next Peyton Manning, or if little Brooke is the next Miley Cyrus?

But parents, coaches, teachers, and other leaders of young people get caught up in the fame and lose our balance when we don’t also teach them the skills and the follow-through that come with less glamorous labor — mowing lawns, waiting tables, prepping and painting a wall, washing clothes, keeping a room clean.

Some kids are pushed too hard and too fast; they work endless hours to become stars and end up burning out. But they are the exceptions. Less obvious — but living in just as much danger — are the ones who absorb mountains of praise without any foundation other than a sense of entitlement.

Many of the brightest stars flame out all too quickly, not because they worked too hard but because they lacked real work ethic. A few — Manning for instance — shine brightly for years and years precisely because they learned these values early and had them reinforced often while growing up.

Excerpted with permission from Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce, by Eric Chester. Copyright 2012 by Eric Chester. For copies, visit revivingworkethic.com. Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press, Austin, TX. All rights reserved.

Eric Chester is a leading voice in the global dialogue on employee engagement, and building a world-class workplace culture. He's an in-the-trenches researcher on the topic of the millennial mindset, and the dynamics of attracting, managing, motivating and retaining top talent. Chester is a Hall-of-Fame keynote speaker and the author of 4 leadership books including his newly released Amazon #1 Bestseller On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in their People without Burning Them Out.  Learn more at EricChester.com and follow him at @eric_chester

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