It seems there are no end to the number of studies that are done on generations and all seem to say similar things, more or less. However, I recently stumbled upon one conducted by a group called “Project: Time Off” that took a rather unique angle of research. Their group first conducted a study called The State of American Vacation 2016. That study revealed dire news that led the group to follow up with their latest compilation of research: The Work Martyr’s Cautionary Tale.
Millennials have been described in all sorts of ways over the past few years. Ranging from insulting characteristics like ‘entitled’ to more neutral descriptors like ‘technology natives’ and more. Project: Time Off now has a new phrase to describe Millennials: “the first generation of America’s work martyr era.”
What is a ‘work martyr’? You can probably guess by the term, but the group officially defines ‘work martyrdom’ as “The belief that it is difficult to take vacation because: 1) No one else at my company can do the work while I’m away. 2) I want to show complete dedication to my company and job. 3) I don’t want others to think I am replaceable. 4) I feel guilty for using paid time off.”
It doesn’t sound like a description of what we think today’s young people are like. It doesn’t sound like the generation who has been rallying for more comprehensive paid family leave. Or who are known for being well-traveled and switching jobs every 2-3 years. And yet, out of the sample group studied for this project, “more than four in 10 (43 percent) of work martyrs are Millennials, compared to 29 percent of overall respondents.”
This isn’t the only research to combat the “lazy, entitled” stereotype of young people. A few months ago, I referenced a 2015 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, which found that Millennials are now the most stressed generation in our country. The top reasons Millennials gave for stress? 1) Work. 2) Money. 3) Relationships.
Why are people in their 20s and 30s, who should be in a very carefree time of life, feeling this way?
According to Project: Time Off, there are several reasons for Millennials’ work martyrdom. Young people are early in their careers, which adds to the pressure of proving themselves at work. Many of the Millennials interviewed had only been at their companies two years or less, whereas a bulk of Generation X and Baby Boomers had spent at least a decade with their respective businesses. Millennials are also not yet tenured in positions that offer such a track, so they don’t feel the stability that their older coworkers often have.
Despite these explanations, Project: Time Off insists that Millennials aren’t just exhibiting typical youngest generation traits. “Millennials’ point of view is unique from previous generations,” the study reads. “The circumstances of the Millennial experience help explain why they are most susceptible to work martyr thinking. Millennials entered the workforce in the midst of the Great Recession, the longest and arguably worst economic downtown since the Great Depression…Even as the national economy has recovered, the personal economy for many Millennials remains a challenge.”
Why haven’t Millennials personal circumstances recovered at the same rate as the rest of the nation’s? Student debt takes a good portion of the blame, but more specifically a combination of student debt and low wages. Since Millennials are at the beginning of their careers, they are typically making less money than their older coworkers while at the same time having significant debt and expenses. “Wage growth,” the study explains, “while also rising, has not come close to keeping pace with student debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York puts wage growth over the last 25 years at 1.6 percent, adjusted for inflation. Student loan debt, however, has grown 163.8 percent. In 1990, the average college student graduated with debt equivalent to 29 percent of annual earnings; 25 years later, in 2015, that number rose to nearly 75 percent.”
Perhaps some Millennials will outgrow the work martyr trait as they find more career success, but circumstances that generations come of age in typically define their careers and even their lives. We all know people who lived through the Great Depression who couldn’t throw anything away. And to this day, the Baby Boomers are marked by their incomparable hard work because they entered a job market of steep competition, when the economy was unprepared for their generation’s massive size. So to hope that Millennials will just “age out” of their circumstances is probably wishful thinking.
Emily Enger is a Millennial farm kid turned farm journalist. She also works in marketing, serving as communications director for a nonprofit that covers nine rural counties in northern Minnesota. These opinions are her own and should not take the place of legal or professional advice. To comment or pitch future topics, email her at For reprint permission, email editor Joan Kark-Wren at