Work vs. Play: Meaning and Connection in the Millennial Workplace

Posted by: Olivia Ledbetter

Ah, the Millennial worker. Tattooed, trendy and full of it (you know – meaning his eight dollar green juice); he’s always the last one in and the first one to leave. At least he has good taste in music, right?

Wrong. Except for perhaps the music taste, but even that’s subjective.

In reality, Millennials are logging more hours than earlier generations did at the same age. Fifty-nine percent even feel ashamed or guilty for using their paid – and earned – vacation time. While this may seem like a good thing for productivity, work burnout is real. Working longer hours can actually result in a less efficient workforce, as well. With abundant access to the world at their fingertips, Millennials can’t feign ignorance on this issue, especially with the studies on work-life balance a hot topic right now.

So, why are they still working so many overtime hours?

Coming of professional age during the Great Recession created long-term anxiety about job security for Millennials. The hesitation to take time off is supposed by many to be due in part to the fact that they’ve always felt pressure and insecurity in regard to a career because of the economic downturn. That being said, there may be a bigger and more surprising factor for their lengthy work hours: the internet.

In an unsuspected turn, U.S. government charts have tracked that, while the state of economics seems to have little effect on how frequently workers take time off, there has been a notable decrease in vacations taken since the invention of the internet. The internet provides easier ways for people to connect and collaborate while also creating more challenges for separating work and home life. Previous generations could simply leave their desks or turn off their computers once the clock struck five, but today’s workforce never escapes the steady stream of email alerts on their phones (or smartwatches). Seeing a new email after hours can also kick anxiety into high gear, creating worries that others are working harder and better. Work-life balance becomes more challenging as workers see that even when the office is closed, Gmail isn’t.

The Productivity of…Narcissism?

Additionally, the Millennial “hustle” is a real thing, seen on everything from extended timesheets to t-shirts. This generation cares deeply about harnessing their individual skills to find purpose in their work and doing that work well. Two-thirds of Millennials would also rather make less money at a job they love and find meaningful rather than more at a job they find boring.

This desire for purpose is clear, but the desires for individual advancement and professional kudos are also important. Millennials want to make a name for themselves. They choose careers that they believe themselves to be uniquely qualified for, and their success is fueled by their belief that they have the ability to deliver genuine contributions.

But, perhaps such a great focus on self is part of their problem.

A shift toward individualism may be at least partially to blame for a generation of overworked employees. While only 12 percent of high-schoolers in the 1950s agreed that “they are an important person,” 80 percent of high-schoolers in 1990s said yes. The increase in believed self-importance leads to workers logging longer hours, thinking themselves to be indispensable to the company. Is this a generation of narcissistic idealists? Maybe. But perhaps a bigger reason for perceived self-importance is due to the overcompensating that occurs when perfectly curated postings on social media and the internet constantly allude to a need to perform on more and greater things.

By understanding the culture that has created these roots of workplace anxiety, marketers can appreciate that Millennials want to feel valuable, because many times they feel they are not.

Several brands have paved the way for how companies can make Millennials feel valuable. Airbnb has exploded in popularity as young consumers feel that their thirst for adventure is validated. Affordable and unique rental options resonate with a group of people who want travel to be a frequent part of their lifestyle. By positioning the brand as an easy resource for casual and immersive travel, Millennials feel they can advocate Airbnb as a brand who truly “gets it.” T.J.Maxx positioned their stores to align with the Millennial desire for a unique and cheap shopping experience, and the stores are now reaping the benefits in the thirtieth consecutive quarter of growth.

If brands can make Millennials feel valuable, Millennials will reciprocate by seeing the brand itself as being valuable. Too many brands have sunk into the shallow assumption that this generation just wants to use products to build their personal brand for attention and “likes,” but few understand the real pressures that make Millennials feel obligated to stand out. Overall, the hesitation of Millennials to stop, rest and take a day off shows both a generation fueled by high expectations and a group of people with a desire to make their time and energy mean something. Brands can win a following by helping Millennials not just have a space to express themselves, but also feel that their interactions are meaningful.

Helping a generation contribute the way they desire on their own terms? That’s something that will always work when done right.

About Olivia Ledbetter

As the 2017 Editorial Intern for Barkley, Olivia understands that great thinking needs a groundwork of solid strategy before it can become truly visionary. Her background in copywriting and creative writing has cultivated her belief...See Olivia's full bio.