Why Are Millennials So Obsessed With How Much They Work?

Americans’ devotion to their jobs actually hasn’t changed that much from generation to generation.

Image of a middle-aged man peering out from behind a large, messy stack of paperwork.
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“Welcome to hustle culture,” wrote Erin Griffith in a January essay for the New York Times. “It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and—once you notice it—impossible to escape.” She’s right about that last part: Writers on the burnout beat are everywhere. The Times piece followed on the one from BuzzFeed in which millennial Anne Helen Petersen dubbed her work-obsessed cohort the “Burnout Generation.” A couple of weeks ago, the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson moved the ball forward with his claim that a new religion has taken hold throughout the land—a gospel of “workism” that is making people his age sad and stressed and disengaged.

Which of these essays is the least convincing of its central claim? What the heck, let’s give trophies to all three. Millennials have been very hard at work explaining to their readers how millennials are very hard at work, and such effort certainly merits some reward. But please, let’s not indulge the hustle-culture critic’s thesis, based on shaky facts, that the young people of today feel a novel burden to be working all the time, or a special sense that their occupation must provide the major purpose in their lives. It’s true this generation has been shaped by a somber set of circumstances—more college debt, greater instability, lower pay on average. That doesn’t mean that they’ve become work-obsessed fanatics.

Thompson’s piece begins, as many in its genre do, with a quote from John Maynard Keynes’ 1930 essay predicting a radical decline of working hours, to just 15 per week, by this century. Thompson says that Keynes was thinking in the right direction: Americans, like those in other developed nations, now work shorter hours than before on the whole. Yet certain segments of the population—rich college-educated men, in particular—have somehow bucked this long-term trend. This group has been working somewhat longer hours, and enjoying somewhat less free time, than people further down the socioeconomic ladder.

This fact, on its own, is neither new nor that obscure—and there are lots of theories to explain it. Some suggest that work may have grown more pleasant (or less awful) than it was before. The decline of organized labor could also have had something do with it. Thompson has himself suggested, in an earlier Atlantic piece from 2016, that technology might be to blame for allowing work to encroach on our leisure time. His latest essay, though, zooms in on another theory that he floated several years ago: Maybe the growth in hours among well-educated professionals derives from this group’s rigid faith in work for work’s own sake. The pursuit of their careers has turned into a search for deeper meaning.

Since this trend toward longer hours, whatever its cause, has been limited to rich well-educated people (and mostly men), it wouldn’t seem to have that much to do with the millennial generation. Here’s where Thompson’s argument melds in with those of his fellow hustle-culture critics: “Workism may have started with rich men,” he says, “but the ethos is spreading.” Having grown up (like him) in the 1990s, millennials were reared in this religion; now they’ve become its most fervent believers, the workiest workists of all.

Millennials have made themselves the “congregants of the Cathedral of Perpetual Hustle,” says Erin Griffith.

They’re on a religious quest for a “holy grail career,” says Anne Helen Petersen.

So that’s the claim. What’s the evidence?

Griffith leans on anecdotes and the idea that a few corporate marketing slogans (“Hustle Harder,” “Rise and Grind,” etc.) sum up her generation’s psychology. Petersen’s essay is more personal but links to an often-cited 2016 study of generational work habits that purports to show millennials are workaholics. Let’s talk about that survey for a minute, as it’s been used to make this point by the Boston Globe, the BBC, the Harvard Business Review, and even Slate. Commissioned by the U.S. travel industry, it aimed to find out why people aren’t taking more vacations. Young people, the study’s authors say, are especially likely to forgo trips because they’re “work martyrs”—which means they said it’s difficult to go on vacation because they “feel guilty” taking time off, want to show “complete dedication” to their jobs, fear being seen as “replaceable,” and/or worry that no one else at their company can fill in for them.

Here’s the study’s take-home finding, as it’s been reported: “More than four in ten (43%) work martyrs are Millennials, compared to just 29 percent of overall respondents.” Note the bone-headed, apples-to-oranges comparison—if 43 percent of work martyrs are millennials, then 57 percent of work martyrs are not millennials. Meanwhile, the study also showed that millennials were more inclined than older colleagues to avoid vacations because they simply can’t afford them and because they’re afraid of getting fired. This all makes sense, given that millennials were the most junior people surveyed (43 percent had less than two years’ experience at their companies), and would thus have had the least job security. If the survey showed anything at all, it’s that millennials have less money and experience than people in other generations. Put another way: They’re young.

Thompson, for his part, leans on a recent Pew Research survey finding that 95 percent of teenagers described having an enjoyable career as an “extremely or very important” goal in their lives. That’s compared to 81 percent who said the same of helping those in need, and just 47 percent who described getting married as being crucial. “Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people,” Thompson writes.

Is it surprising that a group of high-school students seems more focused on their careers—which, after all, are soon to start—than on helping other people, getting married, or having children? More to the point, are the top ambitions of “today’s young people” really any different from the top ambitions of yesterday’s young people, or the top ambitions of the young people from the day before that?

The answer appears to be “just barely.” That Pew survey drew from a set of interviews, conducted late last year, of 920 teenagers. A rather more comprehensive set of data, summarized in this government report, provides answers to similar life-goal questions for some 80,000 high school seniors asked across a 32-year span. The analysis includes responses from two baby boomer graduating classes (of 1972 and 1980), one from Gen X (Class of 1992), and a cohort of millennials (Class of 2004). Among the first boomer group, polled nearly a half-century ago, 85 percent described “achieving success as work” as being a “very important” aspiration. For the Gen Xers, the proportion was 89 percent. For the millennials, 91 percent. If America’s teenagers are more work-obsessed than they used to be, it’s by a very small amount.

The report suggests that teens also haven’t changed much in terms of other values. Among millennials, 81 percent described a good marriage as being very important, compared to 79 percent of Gen Xers (and 81 percent of boomers). Twenty percent of millennials described “correcting social problems” as a very important life goal—and so did 20 percent of Gen Xers.

What about the population as a whole—just how widely has this putative workaholic “ethos” spread throughout the population? In 2017, Pew asked about 5,000 adults which aspects of their lives provide “a great deal of meaning and fulfillment.” Thirty-four percent picked their “job or career.” Thirty-seven percent chose “reading.” Forty-five percent chose “caring for pets and animals.” Forty-seven percent chose “being outdoors and experiencing nature.” (“Spending time with family” topped the list at 69 percent.)

If there is solid evidence in favor of the claim that workism has lately taken over American society, or that millennials are much more work-obsessed than prior generations, it’s not in any of this burnout-beat reporting. What about the idea that millennials are driven less by making money and more by finding deep fulfillment in their jobs? “As several studies show,” writes Thompson, “Millennials are meaning junkies at work.” The phrase As several studies show includes three links. The first goes to a Guardian article about a global survey sponsored by LinkedIn on “the role of purpose in the workforce.” That study finds that 30 percent of millennials are “purpose-oriented,” as compared to 38 percent of Gen Xers and 48 percent of boomers. As the Guardian piece says, the study “found millennials to be the least purpose-driven generation.”

The second goes to an article in Forbes, written by a business-school professor, which asserts that “Millennials want to be home for dinner, and want to feel like their 9-5 job has a real purpose.” This is not a “study.” The third link goes to a different Forbes piece, also not a study, which asserts that “purpose motivates [millennials] more than paychecks,” and refers in turn to the 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey. According to the 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 63 percent of millennials say that financial rewards and benefits are “very important” in choosing where to work, as compared to 22 percent who value a company’s reputation for ethical behavior, and 12 percent who want their job to provide opportunities to make a difference in the community.

Thompson also mentions a Gallup report from 2016, which claimed that, “like all employees, millennials care about their income. But for this generation, a job is about more than a paycheck, it’s about a purpose.” Yeah, well, the same report also notes that 48 percent of millennials say overall compensation is an “extremely important” factor in the job hunt, and that 1 in 2 millennials would consider switching jobs if it meant getting a modest raise. Paychecks still have pull.

These essays’ suspect claims about millennial attitudes and behaviors are all the more irksome for the fact that they’ve been made so many times before in reference to prior generations. When it comes to overwork, like other plagues and panics, it seems we’re rehashing the 1990s. Twenty-seven years ago, economist Juliet Schor published The Overworked American, a detail-laden treatise on the creep of overtime—we’d picked up an extra 164 hours of working time per year, she claimed, since 1970. That book spent several months on the New York Times best-seller list. In 1993, the public-opinion guru Daniel Yankelovich explained that Americans had come to understand their jobs as a “game to be won” and one that could meet “both practical and expressive needs.” And countless, anecdotal pieces in the press bemoaned the internalized rat race of the American workplace. “I’m a very driven person. I don’t know another way to attack this thing called life,” one Gen Xer told the New York Times in 1995.

The same ideas have now resurfaced in a blithely retro format, one that zooms in on a tiny sliver of a long-term trend (or status quo) and pretends it’s something new—a shift in values driven by the rise of social media, or the subprime mortgage crisis, or the special way millennials were treated by their parents. But given the evidence, I don’t see any reason to believe that Americans are any more obsessed with working hard than they were 10 or 20 (or maybe 50) years ago. It’s not even clear that Americans feel more busy now, even in the age of mobile phones and Slack. For a somewhat recent review of research on “subjective time-pressure” going back to 1965, sociologist John Robinson found that the proportion of Americans who reported feeling “always rushed” started out at roughly 1 in 4, increased to 1 in 3 during the 1990s, then dropped back down to 1 in 4 by 2010.

If that’s the case, then what explains the rash of hustle-culture critics in the media? Maybe we’re projecting. Journalists tend to be well-educated but not so highly paid, and strive in a field that’s both competitive and in decline—and that, too, has been the case for at least a couple decades. Which is to say, we’re more susceptible than most to “toil glamour” and the gospel of career fulfillment. If anyone’s obsessed with work, it’s us.