Millennials: Not Lazy, Just Misunderstood

Of all the criticisms leveled at Gen Y in the workplace, the one that stings the most is ‘lazy‘. Overconfident. Ambitious. Entitled. They can live with those criticisms. But Gen Y knows in its overachieving heart it is anything but “lazy”.

True, they readily acknowledge they do not want to work 2000 billable hours a year, and this reality has created resentment on both sides of the generational divide. Adrian Dayton, a young attorney I met on Twitter, posted an interesting dialog today in his blog, Marketing Strategy & The Law. It reports a panel discussion among Millennial attorneys and their bosses. This dialog illustrates very well just how wide the gap in understanding can be:


“Generation Y is entitled, lazy, selfish, tech savvy, and incompetent,” is how Scott Greenfield, one of the finest criminal defense attorneys in NY, started off the panel.

“I spent years as an associate, I hit all my metrics- but I didn’t want to become partner. It’s no secret that focusing on making as much money as possible ruined many of these older partners’ personal lives.” said Anthony Zana, he is now Corporate Counsel for Intergraph Corporation- where he left behind the billable hour.“I’ve seen too many successful partners on their 3rd and 4th marriage- and I did not want that to be me.”

“I think the problem is that they don’t know how to work, our firm has hired 15 attorneys in the last few years from Generation Y, and not one of them is still working for us.” said Moderator, Dan Hull.

“Well, I have had a totally different experience at my firm. As far as I can tell when I give greater flexibility to my Gen-Y attorneys, they are willing to repay it ten-fold, and make the sacrifices that are needed,” said panel member William P. Morelli, General Counsel at Ingram Industries Inc. in Nashville.

“Flexibility? I built this firm, I’m not going to let Gen Y dictate the terms of their employment.” Scott Greenfield fired back. “Generation Y uses this term life-balance as an excuse for their incompetence.”

Moderator Dan Hull agreed, “We have a very clear written policy at our firm, work – life balance is the attorney’s problem, not the firm’s.”

At this point I raised my hand, “If an attorney works 2,000-2,400 billable hours a year, there is not much room left for balance.”

“But the attorney that works over 2,000 hours a years, is going to learn to be a pretty damn good attorney,” replied Dan.


Boomer and X’er bosses view unwillingness to sacrifice as ‘laziness’. Yet Gen Y is not willing to concede that just because they seek balance, they are any less committed. According to Adrian, they are just as motivated, but their goal is different. “We are not motivated by money. At least not as much as our parents were. The currency we are most interested in is lifestyle. Some of us are brilliant and hard working, but you have to dangle the right carrot in front of us.”

So what is that ‘right carrot’? Money? Time Off?

No, it’s Voice. And Context.

This week, I’ve had the pleasure of talking with three hardworking Millennials. Each has agreed to accompany me to The CMO Summit in New York and we’ve been preparing what to say. The panel will discuss “10 Things Millennials Wish They Could Tell Their CMO”. Like Adrian Dayton, my panelists (marketers with 4-7 years experience) insist they want their companies to get the best of what they have to offer. They also insist that harnessing their ideas has less to do with hours on the job than it does with adequate opportunities to be heard and contribute.

The Feb Harvard Business Review case, where Gen Y employee, Josh, is compelled circumvent his Gen X boss, Sarah, and speak directly to the CEO to advance his ideas resonates deeply with Millennials. Most have felt that way at some point in their career. Here’s how they express it:

I hate to be shut down without a hearing.”

“Why do I have to go to one person before going to the next?”

“It’s the difference between ‘voice’ and ‘say’. I don’t expect to make decisions, but I do expect to be able to influence the decision with my ideas.”

“Pecking orders seem archaic to me. I have an innate respect for senior management, their success and knowledge, but don’t understand why I am expected to be afraid to talk to them.”

Millennials have lots of ideas, and many are related to being more efficient. Compelling them to trade lifestyle hours for what are seen as unecessarily long work hours is the surest way to frustrate a motivated Gen Y worker. In their view, if something is not working, why not fix it? What’s more, why not fix it immediately? Sometimes this is interpretted as ‘attitude’, but for Millennials, it is common sense. They are more than willing to work hard when necessary. They just want assurance that it is really necessary, and are deeply offended when told to be a ‘good soldier’ or ‘pay their dues’.

Work smarter, not harder is their answer to the charge of ‘laziness’. But, if there has to be inefficient busywork, the least they expect is to have a reasonable explanation why. For Millennials, context is almost as important as having a voice. Knowing the reason, helps them keep faith that their work has meaning and purpose. Without context, they are likely to simply check out.

“I can’t stand emails that say, ‘Can you take care of this? thx.’ Take a minute to explain what you need, why you need it, what I can do to make it great.”

As I listen to Millennials talk about what motivates and demotivates them, I can’t help but wonder if we all wouldn’t be better off thinking like Millennials.