Two trends help make millennials seem lazy to their elders

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By now, everyone has heard of millennials’ supposed devotion to avocado toast, but is it true that millennials live for brunch more than work? Could Gen Z be the laziest generation of all? These are just some of the stereotypes associated with what generations we are born into, but there may be less to these stereotypes than many people think.

Sociologist Martin Schröder, a professor at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany, wanted to find out if some birth cohorts consider work and career more important than others do. Tracking how answers changed over time produced some unexpected results.

Regardless of what generation someone belongs to, the importance of work actually depends on a combination of what year it was and what age that person was at the time of being surveyed. Schröder’s findings showed that younger individuals (regardless of what generation they’re from) tend to find work less important and that the importance of work has been going down over time.

No matter what they might say about the youth, someone who’s now a middle-aged work obsessive would have rated work as less important when asked in their twenties. The importance of work has also decreased over historical time, so attitudes shift as a result, regardless of what birth cohort someone belongs to.

Avocado toast priorities

Generations were not always a thing. They are actually the brainchild of Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim, who saw generations as birth cohorts united by a shared experience, such as the horrors of World War I, during their formative years.

He thought that cohorts that did not share such an experience could not form a generation. That idea would change with his successors, who defined new generations every decade or two. What exactly bound them together, besides the period during which they were born, was questionable.

Even though these generations are somewhat arbitrarily defined, people still associate them with distinct personality traits, including work motivation. Is the rumored laziness of Gen Z an effect of cohort, their age at the time, or the time period they are living through?

To see if laziness is really defined by generation, Schröder focused on the most recent birth cohorts, which he defined as follows: the World War Generation (1925–1945), Baby Boomers (1945–1965), Gen X (1965–1980), Gen Y, aka millennials (1980–2000), and Gen Z (2001 and younger). There are differences within how these generations are popularly defined, but for the purpose of Schröder’s study, the cohort definitions above were used.

Act your age

What Schröder wanted to find out was whether the importance of work was an effect of certain factors. It could be that everyone’s opinions change as they grow older (age effect), or maybe opinions of society in general change regardless of age (period effect). Or perhaps the opinions are exclusively tied to birth year (generational differences).

“Seeing a purported generation as being lazy when it is young and hard-working when it is middle-aged is more compatible with an age rather than a cohort effect,” Schröder said in a study recently published in the Journal of Business and Psychology.

Using data from nearly 600,000 people who participated in the Integrated Values Survey, which ran from 1981 to 2022, Schröder used one generation for reference and then compared it to the others. What is often seen as the “laziness” of younger people is partly due to the period during which they are surveyed. With the passing of time, the importance of work has lessened. This is the period effect.

But there’s also an age effect. An individual who was 20 (the age around which work is seen as least important) in 2022 (the year in the data when society saw work as less important than ever) probably appeared lazy to someone who was in their fifties at the same time.

When looking at a younger coworker, an older person might not necessarily consider that, when they were the same age, they were at a lifetime low in terms of how they viewed work. The year when they were that age was also—at least up until that point then—the time when society gave the least importance to work.

At least for the importance of work, there really is no such thing as a generational difference. Two separate trends just combine to make it look like one.

So is there any truth to the other stereotypes? Most of them really have more to do with societal trends than anything else, and the young tend to jump on trends at light speed. While Boomers may think they are the hardest workers and Gen Z could argue they would rather be social media influencers, maybe the older generation isn’t remembering how they saw work when they were just starting out.

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