In August last year, a Facebook post on the grievances the author had against the “young candidates” who applied for a position at his company went viral.

“Are we raising our generation to be adult babies? Well, I interviewed 12 local graduate jobseekers this week for a job… I’m disappointed with their responses because none of them were hungry for a job,” wrote Delane Lim. The founder of Futuready Asia then penned another post to explain that seven of the candidates had a range of requests, including asking for more annual leave, transport allowance, and a team of junior colleagues to assist with tasks. One also requested not to work on weekends.

“I felt I was being interviewed as [an] employer, not doing my job to interview potential employees,” he added. He concluded that “these young talents are not hungry for a job” as they are “not willing to be humble and not willing to suffer”.

The rant reignited an evergreen debate on fussy millennial job seekers versus exploitative employers: Those who agreed with him echoed his sentiments that younger employees are too demanding, while those who disagreed said his take was that of boomer mentality, where the only way to prove one’s worth is to “sell their soul” to the company.

Unique influences and distractions

It’s no secret that the generalised view of Singaporean millennials is that they are lazy and finicky. A 2019 survey conducted by Senior Minister of State Dr Janil Puthucheary, in collaboration with Channel News Asia, showed that only 15 to 17 per cent of people found them to be disciplined or loyal. In addition, only 27 to 32 per cent felt that they are hard-working and take ownership of their work.

And the thing is, millennials have professed that they don’t value their careers the way their predecessors do. It is noted in A Review of the Empirical Evidence on Generational Differences in Work Attitudes, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology in 2010, that many millennials rate work as less central to their lives.

“It’s hard to say why that is, but I suspect that the ease and variety of entertainment options might have contributed to these differences. For example, air travel today is much more affordable than it was in the ’80s or ’90s,” says Dr Sam Yam, an associate professor of management and organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. It should also be acknowledged that each generation has influences that are unique to them.

“Every generation approaches work differently, and their outlook is heavily shaped by the economic, social, and technological forces of their time,” says Sabrina Ho, #HerWorldTribe member and founder/CEO of Half The Sky, a career platform for women.

For example, because boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) grew up in the post-war era, they are driven by stability and are happy to work in the same company for as long as possible.

However, millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) grew up during the rise of the Internet – a time of technological advancements in a hyper-connected society. As a result, they value being heard, which makes them want to serve a greater purpose, and not just be a cog in a wheel.

And the thing is, millennials are the children of boomers, who typically parented with a “We want it to be easier for our kids than it was for us” mindset. This further perpetuates their bad rap for being entitled and lazy – the complete opposite of the diligent stereotype their parents’ generation embodied.

More than just about money

Anecdotally, in spite of the current pandemic-ravaged economy, many millennials have quit their job without another one lined up.

“Working from home during the circuit breaker period left me burnt out as I was working even more than I would at the office, so I decided to reprioritise and take a break,” shares 28-year-old Elizabeth Liew, who left her full-time job of five years in July last year. She is currently freelancing while applying for full-time jobs.

“I enjoy my current flexi-work arrangement as it gives me more control over my time – not having to ‘clock in’ and ‘clock out’ is quite freeing. Incentives like telecommuting or a flexible work schedule are what we look out for. Our priorities are shifting and many of us don’t like our lives to revolve around a fixed work pattern. It’s not about changing or going against traditional work culture, but about adopting healthier methods that will make us happier and more productive workers.”

So what is it that really drives millennials?

According to research findings published by Manpowergroup last year, what they value is flexible, meaningful and challenging work – so they’re more likely to leave their jobs if they’re exhausted or unfulfilled. It is also because of this that they place greater importance on getting a job they love, even if it doesn’t pay as well.

“I have found that millennials value the flexibility that freelance work brings, both in terms of work-life balance and the exposure to different types of work, which can be more stimulating,” says Sabrina. She, however, doesn’t agree with the strawberry millennial stereotype.

“Personally, I find them extremely hungry and ambitious. It’s just that they express this in a different way and have greater demands on employers, which is not a bad thing. I’ve witnessed too many employers with an old-school, top-down approach to management typically expressed as ‘I pay you, so I own you’. This just doesn’t work for them as they have far less tolerance for this approach, and may find bosses who do not appreciate their personal time exploitative.”

Managing a new generation

Either way, there shouldn’t be a sweeping view of millennials – or any other generation, for that matter. As Sabrina points out, the group is “remarkably diverse and not monolithic”.

“Some of them would happily choose flexible work options to maximise their work-life balance but I have also seen others who value salary as an important marker of success. The one thing that is clear is that this generation is bringing new expectations into the workplace, and they have stronger feelings about how, where and when they want to work, compared to other generations.”

That said, Dr Yam stresses that it’s important to refrain from making comparisons between the work ethics of different generations.

“Generational differences in terms of values are sort of like personality differences. There are no upsides or downsides, because each individual difference has its own pros and cons,” he explains.

“For example, millennials might be less orderly compared to their parents, but might also be more creative. A leader at work must be acutely aware of what his or her followers value, and manage them accordingly.”

This article first appeared in the February 2021 issue of Her World.