The participation trophy: On its own, it’s a harmless trinket for six-year-olds. But it’s become a caricature for the Millennial stereotype, symbolizing a generation some believe to be so coddled that merely showing up is grounds for an accolade.
The consequences of the perceived trophy mentality are now playing out in the workplace. The perception is so invasive that Millennials are viewed monolithically, as if 75 million people could be assigned the same attributes (regardless of the facts). It is no surprise that workplaces and managers around the country are struggling with how to get the most from a generation that they don’t understand.
Millennials have made it clear they most want career advancement and growth, something not every workplace can offer on demand. But in lieu of those opportunities, many companies are resorting to quick fixes in an attempt to shape culture. Whether it’s free snacks, Ping-Pong tables, or beer taps, these perks—like participation trophies before them—are trinkets that do not thoughtfully consider the symptoms of the problem before providing a treatment.
Vacation usage—a benefit repeatedly found to be more valued than raises, bonuses, and retirement plans—is a measure of trust and an important part of the work-life balance equation. Despite its value, a study by Project: Time Off revealed Millennials are not taking the vacation they earn. In fact, they are the most likely generation to forfeit time off, even though they receive the least amount of vacation days.
Research into Millennial vacation behavior shows they are afraid, not entitled. Compared to Boomers, Millennials are at least twice as likely to say they are fearful of losing their job. This cohort worries about what the boss might think, wants to show complete dedication, and does not want their bosses to see them as replaceable.
These findings are counterintuitive to the coddled Millennial stereotype that ignores the circumstances of the generation’s experience. Coming of age during an economic downturn has consequences. When Millennials landed jobs, they bring with them a strong desire to prove themselves, intensified by the often long and painful search that preceded their first day. This all occurs amidst changing American work culture and attitudes toward taking time off.
Millennials are the first generation to enter the workforce in the era of vacation decline. After decades of using an average of 20.3 days, Americans’ vacation usage began to decline in 2000 and it has not slowed its downward trajectory since, most recently hitting 16.2 days used.
Millennials are also the first generation to experience internet and email as a fixture of their work life from day one. These digital natives view and use technology differently than older generations. They are more likely to stay plugged in, and less likely to benefit from time off: 34 percent of Millennials said they worked every day of their vacations and felt less productive upon return.
The solution to the vacation problem is simple for every generation: plan ahead. Project: Time Off research shows that workers who plan their days out at the beginning of the year are happier with their job and professional success, relationships, and general wellbeing. Still, Millennials, who are more likely to feel that their company culture is silent or negative about vacation time, may not feel comfortable making a request for fear of the optics.
To dispel that fear, managers must lead. Thirty percent of Millennials say their boss is the most powerful influencer over their time, beating out their own families by 10 percentage points. Yet, even though 91 percent of managers say they encourage time off, just 43 percent actually talk to employees about vacation.
For Millennials in the workplace, there is good news. Millennial managers—now about a quarter of the generation—are more likely to agree that employees who take time off are less prone to stress and burnout and return to work recharged and more productive. Still, nearly half of Millennial managers feel that company pressure prevents them from approving time off requests, compared to about a third of Gen X and Boomer managers.
Getting over those pressures can pay dividends. A supportive boss is a major driver of an employee’s happiness with the job and company. In a tightening labor market where retention is critical, the value of encouraging vacation goes far beyond a few days off.
Managers—particularly at the most senior levels—must open the lines of communication about vacation and think about the behavior they themselves are modeling. What’s at stake is a happy, thriving, productive workforce—perhaps the most meaningful trophy of all.