Old people ranging from Martha Stewart to Bill Maher have scolded millennials for being lazy and entitled. Just one in five millennials has ever eaten a Big Mac. They don’t even have sex. So they are probably slackers at work, right?
Well, according to a new meta-analysis, there’s no real generational difference in work ethic between millennials and baby boomers (or even Gen-Xers!). Published this week in the Journal of Business and Psychology, a research team led by Wayne State University and Ford Motor Company researcher Keith L. Zabel analyzed a whopping 77 studies and some 105 measures of work ethic.
The researchers were evaluating a secularized version of the Protestant work ethic (PWE), which states that work is central to life, that if you work hard you’ll find success, and that you should delay gratification and rely on yourself. The PWE is kind of a big deal to American history; the hyperinfluential social theorist Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (PDF) that Protestantism drove the widespread adoption of capitalism. To this day, the U.S. looks like the fullest expression of that thesis: You could say that it’s responsible for why the country became an economic behemoth so fast, and you can see it to this day in the way Americans eat lunch at their desks and work while sick and never take vacation.
What’s so fascinating is that while the American people are getting less religious every generation — 59 percent of boomers say religion is very important to them, compared with 53 percent of Gen X and 41 percent of millennials — the secularized, capitalist religiosity of the PWE is still super present in the youngs as well as the olds.
Zabel and his colleagues contend that the PWE is part of what enables millennials to flourish among all the technological changes that they take to so well. It’s also probably not a good idea for companies to treat millennials like they’re aliens and redesign their organizations to accomodate their zany, individualist, Snapchatty demands. The researchers summarize it with a certain corporate elegance: “The finding that generational differences in PWE do not exist suggests that organizational initiatives aimed at changing talent management strategies and targeting them for the ‘very different’ Millennial generation may be unwarranted and not a value-added activity.” For better or worse, millennials are a lot like their parents.