The work martyr

Dec 04, 2017

No generation owns the work ethic, but when it comes to motivation and anxiety, there’s a big difference between millennials and boomers.

I recently read a report from Project: Time Off called, “The Work Martyr’s Cautionary Tale: How the Millennial Experience Will Define America’s Vacation Culture.” I strongly recommend it to leaders in the AEC industry.

While I am always pleased to read reports of millennials labeled as something other than slackers, I was less-than-thrilled to read that millennials are the most likely generation to want to be seen as a “work martyr” – one who avoids taking vacation for one of several essentially narcissistic-sounding reasons:

  1. No one else at my company can do the work while I’m away.
  2. I don’t want others to think I am replaceable.
  3. I want to show complete dedication to my company and job.

Guilt associated with vacation led to another depressing conclusion: Millennials are the most likely generation to forfeit time off, even though they earn the least amount of vacation days.

I find this interesting for a couple of reasons. During my financial management seminar, I point out that firms overemphasize utilization in a misguided attempt at accountability that causes employees to respond to what is measured. I’ve heard comments from younger staff during interviews like, “Sometimes I work slowly on projects so I am 100 percent billable and so I don’t get griped at.” That shows a real missed opportunity to emphasize quality over quantity.

If your firm is one that focuses on chargeability as the end-all metric, especially for younger staff, another finding in the article is particularly illuminating: Millennials call their bosses “the most powerful influencer over their time” – more influential, that is, than their families.

The article partially attributed the work martyr mentality to coming of age during the Great Recession, with the economic downturn leading to a long and painful job search that left an indelible mark in the work ethic of millennials. I can personally attest to this: I graduated right at the very rock-bottom of the recession and was once turned down for an unpaid summer internship in my field due to “lack of experience.” Ouch!

I was also once turned down for a night job at a bakery when I was in law school. (“You’re just not Panera material” is a joke my husband still finds funny). Knowing that hard work is not enough to get ahead, and that you can be turned away from volunteering for a company, will never be too far out of my mind. The fear and guilt associated with feeling replaceable is a constant thread in my professional development, and I think that some of the frustrations that I hear from more experienced leaders in firms about “kids these days” is rooted in that experience.

For example, asking to take on additional tasks instead of honing one specific skill is perceived by management as having an inability to focus. Desperately asking how to move up the organizational chart is perceived as the “trophy” generation that wants to “check the box and get a promotion.” Expressing a fear of being “pigeon-holed” into a specific studio or department is viewed as flighty and uncommitted to building expertise.

My personal favorite is complaining that young people are always on their phones. Contrast that with this finding: More than half of millennials, the study reports, feel that it is acceptable to answer a work email during dinner, versus 22 percent of boomers. When I hear these behaviors, I understand the frustration of leadership, but I also recognize that deeply-entrenched fear of being replaced and unemployable – justifiable fears known to those of us who graduated during the recession.

I don’t think any generation owns the work ethic, but I do think that there are different motivators and different anxiety-inducers for capable, motivated staff across the organizational chart that leaders of any age would be wise to consider.

Jamie Claire Kiser is Zweig Group’s director of consulting. Contact her at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.