The Work Culture Divide: Boomers vs Millennials

Two generations. Solid senior man standing and shakings hands with handsome young hairstylist at barbershop.

The apocalypse, it seems, is in vogue these days, at least as far as employee hiring is concerned. Uncertainty on the direction of the country in general, and immigration in particular, has caused consternation in Human Resources departments around the country. Immigration in the science and technical field has traditionally padded shortages of skilled employees in the workforce when they occur; now many technical fields are feeling the “double crunch” of Baby Boomers retiring en masse just as immigration hits a chilled political environment. Many companies in The Martec Group’s field of vision (including medical, tech sector, and engineering among others) are starting to take a hard look at how work culture needs to change to attract top talent. This means dealing with the other apocalypse, at least if you believe social media: those infernal Millennials.

According to my news feed, Millennials are the worst thing to happen to work since serfdom was abolished. Endless lists of how Millennials are somehow failing to live up to expectations, often with the conclusion that they are “entitled” and “self-absorbed.” Given the authorship of most of these lists, such rants are rich in irony. The primary difference with the complaints toward the Millennials is less that screeds are written about their self-absorption and more that they are unreflexively being written by Baby Boomers (aka the “me generation”) and my own Gen Xers (aka the “apathy and irony generation”). However, I think there’s a far deeper issue that most of these articles ignore in favor of generational division:

The problem isn’t that Millennials don’t understand how to succeed in modern business; the problem is they understand it far better than their older managers do. Everything these anti-Millennial rants accuse the generation of doing are in fact reasonable strategies for the success of the individual in the modern work environment. To understand why, we need to understand how the notion of work has changed over the last 50 years.

Few would dispute the notion that “work” in America has changed extensively as we went from what was primarily an agricultural economy, through an industrial boom, and now into a knowledge and service based economic system. We understand abstractly that the shift from an economy where organized labor and contract employment to an ideologically at-will, individualized employment system would involve some changes. However, most of the anti-Millennial rants, at their core, betray a desire for the type of employee loyalty and attitude towards climbing the internal hierarchy that came from contract labor, while removing all the pillars that incentivized.

Having raised the specter of unionism, I’m sure a few in the audience are angrily penning emails declaring me a business hating communist. However, the value of unions or contract labor in a broad sense is orthogonal to this argument. Whether you or I believe unions to be a noble ideal we should return to or a scourge on industry slain by the righteous paladins of enterprise, contact labor facilitated specific attitudes toward work and the employer/employee relationship. Particularly:

  • Contact labor provided a visible set of rewards aside from salary that incentivized long-term employment as the most straightforward path to personal economic success for the worker. Corporate union labor structures often only interacted weakly with outside pay grades; employee loyalty was generated through secondary benefits.
  • The culture of work was primarily disseminated by employee leaders, rather than by the employers themselves. While anyone who has spent time with union members has heard plenty of grousing about their union reps “being in bed with management,” the fact that labor agreements were not directly between employer and individual employee is significant. Arguments about workplace culture and “how one should work” came not from the employer, who had a vested interest in minimizing overhead costs (including labor), but from an intermediate party whose personal metrics for career success were calculated on the balance sheet of the executive.
  • Because of the two aforementioned points, generations of workers were enculturated to think of the standard strategy for employment success to revolve around consistent performance for incremental gain over the long term with a single (or small number of) employers throughout one’s lifetime.

For those of us born into the Boomer or Gen X generations, the decline of this mode of labor is part of our memory; we watched the slow decline of organized labor and shrinkage of blue collar work throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. We also watched the “at-will” employment ideology go from an obscure misinterpretation of a 19th Century text through a white-collar centric model into the dominant attitude towards work.

For Millennials, by contrast to their elders, all of this “contract employment” stuff is ancient history, as alien as the norms of the Great Depression era are to Boomers. Millennials have been raised in the era of at-will employment, negotiated their benefits on an individual-to-management basis, and have been barraged in media with the notion that “maximizing shareholder value” is the purpose of a company, and that employment must be flexible and open to removal in order to maximize efficiency and profitability.

Is it any surprise that in such an environment the Millennial generation has a different attitude towards work than their forbearers? Let’s cover briefly some of the main complaints and see how they function as adaptive strategies:

  • Millennials are entitled, and feel they are “owed” more than they have earned. Counter: Millennials are aware that they can be terminated at any time for (nearly) any reason, and therefore seek to maximize their own enrichment. With media feeds full of stories of managerial incompetence or malfeasance (exaggerated in frequency or note, perception matters), Millennials have developed a defensive strategy of “get mine before I get screwed” in the workplace.
  • Millennials have unrealistic expectations of how quickly they can advance. Counter: Millennials understand their own career security, regardless of employer, comes from what’s on their resume. Contract labor provided security from termination anxiety through its structured system; having extensive records of promotions, titles, and acquired job skills provides security from termination anxiety in the at-will system.
  • Millennials are constantly absorbed in their technology. Counter: It is an exaggeration, though not much of one, to say that a Millennial can find and apply for a competitive job in the time it takes you to announce that Taco Tuesdays are being canceled. Digital acumen and networking provides security and continual information awareness of alternatives and backup options if the current situation doesn’t work out.
  • Millennials have no loyalty to their employers. Counter: Why would they? A “lateral” jump to a competitor may offer as much benefit to the employee in compensation as a promotion with their current job. Leveraging one of those new job titles into a joint hire/promotion is certainly viable. The at-will system is fundamentally transactional in all its rewards; couple that with perceived notions of adversarial management (the “bad exec” may not be as common as our media feeds make it seem, but a few public bad actors distort perceptions of frequency) and there’s little reason to focus on internal corporate development for the employee.

Ultimately in the at-will system, the elements that encouraged long-term employment and incremental advancement over a lifetime are gone. Ostensibly, the at-will system makes companies more competitive by making employment flexible. Instead, it has made a system which incentivizes personal security and advancement as much at the expense of the employer as in benefit to them. The kids are all right; they get how the system works and what it offers. The problem is the rest of us, wanting the work style and ethic of “the old days” with none of the workplace structures that encouraged it. Entitlement, indeed.

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