Fact or Fiction: Is Gen Y Lazy?

Calling Gen Y (born 1978-1994) lazy is en vogue. The Washington Post's April 3rd article is among the latest to call into question this generation's work ethic. The article highlights new data from the Pew Research Center that confirms current suspicions: Gen Y is different. Is this really a surprise?

Unlike the Silent Generation, Boomers and Gen X, Pew found that Gen Y is the only generational cohort that doesn't cite "work ethic" as a defining characteristic. The top three responses elicited by the open-ended question were: technology use, music/pop culture and liberal/tolerant. Further, Gen Y believes that older employees have a better work ethic and therefore they aren't interested in asserting moral superiority.

As the head of a research organization, I could critique Pew's methodology or call the analysis problematic (see Erica Williams' discussion on the use of "work ethic").

As an employer of Gen Y women, I could testify about the hard-work and dedication of my younger staff members. And, of course, insert an overused stereotype about their techie tendencies (after all they did convince me to buy an iPhone).

I'm going to put my professional and personal concerns on hold for now. My concern is less about the data or conclusions many researchers have been asserting, and more about the issues they are raising. What we learn about Gen Y is determined by the questions we ask. And we're asking the wrong questions.

Gen Y workers don't define themselves by their work ethic. So, what? It's an interesting piece of data. But, that's all it is. What we really need is data that can lead to action. To be competitive in the future, employers need information that leads to strategies for attracting and retaining Gen Y talent.

The current literature on Gen Y, seems preoccupied with the extent to which Gen Y is or isn't lazy. But this distracts from larger research questions. We need a new framework for understanding Gen Y. We don't have to stop discussing generational differences, but we do need to probe deeper to understand the factors that create those differences.

  • How does Gen Y understand work?
  • What is their definition of work ethic?
  • How does their understanding of work affect how and when Gen Y produce results?
  • How can employers collaborate with Gen Y to redefine the workplace?

These are the types of questions Business and Professional Women's (BPW) Foundation is exploring. Through our Young Careerist Research Project we're asking Gen Y women about their views of work and the workplace and will then share that knowledge with employers looking to recruit and retain these young women. Employers are beginning to recognize that utilizing the talents of Gen Y will increase their talent pool and will also improve their bottom line.

BPW Foundation's primary research will give voice to a distinct group of working women who are vital to developing tomorrow's diverse and skilled workforce. Over the next 20 years, talent will be the most important corporate resource. If we are going to succeed, we can't afford to ignore Gen Y's demands for new rules of engagement.

BPW Foundation is looking for Gen Y women and employers to partner with us in our research. If you would like to redefine the workplace for today, and in the future, email to foundation@bpwfoundation.org.