The Millennial Way: Beyond Live-to-Work or Work-to-Live

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In the classic comedy movie What About Bob, Bill Murray tells his therapist, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love Neil Diamond and those who don’t”.

Many of us use this same ‘either/or’ principle to assess the behaviors or others. We label others as creative or concrete thinkers. People like the big picture or are detail oriented. They are individualistic or they are group-oriented. They are wired as introverts or extroverts.

However, these tidy boxes don’t always work and sometimes events come along which shake our thinking. For example, the term ‘ambiverts‘ has recently emerged to create a third category of people who are a mix of introvert/extrovert. As I work with clients and speak to them about their challenges, I often hear the behaviors and expectations of Millennials are breaking many of the ‘either/or’ categories that we like to use.

More specifically, many people are asking me what motivates Millennials in their work. In the past, my ‘either/or’ thinking has answered this question in two ways;

  1. People work-to-live. Work is just something they do and is not highly important. It means that they punch-out at 5:00!
  2. People live-to-work. Those who are oriented this way don’t watch the clock because they are driven to perform. Work is their life.

However, I don’t think Millennials fit into these two categories as cleanly as previous generations have. So I tried to think of some alternate Millennial options….and I didn’t come up with anything! So instead, I have asked three qualified people to answer the following question:

If employees from previous generations tended to fall into these categories – they worked to live or they lived to work – what new category does the majority of Millennials fall into?

Here are their replies:

Paul Sohn: Millennials work to make a difference. An overwhelming reason why Millennials work is simply because they seek to make a difference. The fact that their creative talents can be harnessed for a higher purpose energizes Millennials to wake up every day, knowing that their work matters and that they can make a dent in the universe. The fastest way to disengage a Millennial is simply give them a routine and transaction work that barely uses their talents and passions. On the other hand, the fastest way to engage a Millennial is to paint a lofty picture of a compelling vision and get them to be an integral part of it.

Matt NixonMillennials live to do worthwhile work. We have grown up watching our parents commute to a job they did not enjoy or feel passionate about. We understand that we need to make money, but we are willing to take a lower salary or work more hours if it is for a cause we believe in. While job security and financial peace were our parents’ motives for working (and those are great motives), we are concerned with making the world a better place and will move from job to job until we see this happen.

Jane BoyleLife First, Salary Optional. Millennials do not like to be boxed into any category or much less stereotyped–be it at work or home.  They are loyal to their employer so long as the job suits their needs and ties in with their requirement for flexibility and work-life balance. They want the freedom to focus on meaningful relationships and experiences.  Flexibility means being able to work in a way that suits them best—be it at home, on the beach, or in the coffee shop on the corner.  They prefer not be constrained by when they work (e.g. skipping the traditional 9 to 5 shift in order to break a 40-hour week into segments at different times of the day).  Having greater autonomy over their work schedule (that rewards results over hours worked), generates a diverse and engaging environment, and creates a stimulating atmosphere that offers work-life balance is the key to a Millennial’s heart.

Do these insights align with yours? If not, what would you add?


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Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, Gen X’er and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman Email:

With thanks to my guest contributors!

Matt Nixon is a Millennial, Enrollment Professional, MA student and husband. He lives and works in Costa Mesa, CA.

Paul Sohn is a Millennial, author, blogger and MA student. He lives and consults from his base in San Diego, CA.

Jane Boyle is an X’er, recently minted MA graduate and wife who lives in Virginia. She recently completed her thesis on creating organizational opportunities for Millennials.

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