Myth: “Gen-X Employees Don’t Want to Work Hard” – Time to Stop Blaming, Start Changing


Myth: “Gen-X Employees Don’t Want to Work Hard” – Time to Stop Blaming, Start Changing
Last night I spoke to a group of prospective students interested in Columbia Business School, my alma mater. I discussed the benefit of my degree, but also addressed the question of “work/life balance.” I emphasized that there is no such thing “balance,” only “fit” that you can strategically adjust over the course of your career and life. To me, it seemed amazing that this discussion was even taking place—that the subject of work+life was even on the radar screen. Back in 1992, when I was applying to MBA programs, the terms work and life were never mentioned. No need: work was work, life was life. Enough said.

So what’s going on? Well, like any organization, Columbia is answering the interests and needs of its customers. And, for their customers, how to work and have a life after getting an MBA is important. The subject is also being addressed at other top business schools. I gave the keynote speech last May at Tuck/Dartmouth’s WorkLife Conference, and you can read about my experience speaking to students at Harvard Business School in my article, It’s Fit, Not Balance: The New Work+Life Fit Reality.

Anne Fisher’s article, What Do Gen-Xers Want? in the 1/18/06 issue of Fortune discusses findings from a book written by Charlotte and Laura Shelton entitled, The NeXt Revolution (Davies-Black). This mother-daughter research team surveyed 1,200 Gen-X employees and discovered that a majority wanted employers that:

  1. Had an egalitraian structure, and
  2. Were super-supportive of employees’ desire to get a life outside of work.

Business schools are recognizing and responding to the unique values and expectations of today’s young employees, but how is Corporate America responding? In my experience, most are somewhere between a state of shock and a state of denial.

I saw the first signs of shock back in 1998, when corporate clients began to tell me, “It’s the weirdest thing, but the first question I get when I go out to recruit is, ‘How can I work here and have a life?’” These (mostly baby boomer clients) would then add, “I would never in a million years have asked that question.”

Today, the fact that young prospective employees ask that question isn’t as surprising. But now there’s a tendency to blame it on the fact that “young people just don’t want to work hard.” Why? Maybe it’s easier than admitting that perhaps the way business has historically operated isn’t working. Because the truth is, Gen-X employees are actually working harder than young employees did 25 years ago. A 2005 study entitled, Generation & Gender in the Workplace conducted by the extraordinary researchers at Families and Work Institute (my former employer) in partnership with the American Business Collaborative found:

“When we compare 2002 Gen-X employees with their age counterparts in 1977 we find 2002 Gen-X employees actually work significantly more paid and unpaid hours per week (45.6 hours on average), than employees of comparable ages in 197 (42.8 paid and unpaid hours on average)…”

This study is a must-read for every manager. It moves the dialogue past unproductive blaming, toward a focus on new strategies and solutions. Instead of remaining in adversarial positions, organizations could partner with, and learn from, these new employees–help them strategically achieve their work+life expectations while meeting the needs of the business.

Companies don’t have the luxury of ignoring this new reality for very long if they hope to attract and retain the best and brightest Gen-X employees to replace retiring baby boomers. While some argue that the impending labor shortage, as baby boomers retire, is overstated, recent projections released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that companies don’t have a lot of wiggle room. BLS projects a labor force of 162.3 million in 2012, and an economy that will require that 165.3 million workers.

What should companies do? Create an environment that supports conversation about how to strategically combine work and life (see Top 10 Work+Life Fit Tips for Managers and the Work+Life Fit Roadmap for Managers). Whether you like it or not, work+life is an important consideration for employees born after 1964. Stop avoiding this fact by blaming it on a myth. Globalization and advances in technology have caused us all to work harder, faster, and longer, including Gen-Xers. The 20th Century model of “work is work, life is life” no longer applies to any of us. And, the question “how am I going to work here and have a life?” is one question we all should be asking. It’s an acknowledgment that we need new approaches for managing work+life better suited to the realities of the 21st Century. If companies don’t respond creatively, it will become increasing difficult, if not impossible, for them to compete for the best human capital.
What should individuals do? Recognize that you play a key role in managing your own work+life fit (see Top 10 Work+Life Fit Tips for Individuals and Work+Life Fit Roadmap for Employees). The biggest mistake I see Gen-X employees make is trying to achieve their work+life fit objectives without strategically incorporating the needs of their business into their plan. Make sure you are following a process that helps you take the initiative to create, negotiate, and implement a “fit” that not only considers your needs but also the realities of the business.
My discussion last night with the prospective MBAs says it all. It’s a new day. Stop blaming, and start innovating.

Personal Work+Life “Fit” InnovationNot Working Less, Just Differently

This week’s success story is from Kris, a senior marketing manager at a large software company. Her story illustrates a critical point: changing your fit doesn’t necessarily mean working less, just differently.
I was driven to change my Work + Life Fit when I realized that guilt was eating at me every day. At work, “I should be with my kids” and at home “I really need to be catching up on work”. So, I took charge that very day and reworked my schedule. How?
I identified meetings as the main thing keeping me at work during specified hours. So, I now diligently manage in-person meeting requests (e.g. the agenda must be clear or I decline.) I ask myself: am I really a key contributor in the meeting? Can we do this via email and still achieve the desired outcome? Can we meet for 30 minutes? Can I batch all of my meetings into the same day (I try to work from home on Tuesdays & Thursdays)? And I also use technology to my advantage. A mobile Pocket PC w/email, and creative Outlook calendaring help to optimize my meetings.

My advice to others? Decide first: “I am willing to patiently accept the initial judgment of others when I take charge of my W/L Fit. They may fear the unknown, but, I will convert their perspective by delivering results like never before, but on my clock and in my location.” If you establish up-front communication and trust (through results), the judgment will go away over time.
And what do you get? You work where you are inspired. You focus when you are most productive. You handle many of your people connections with more flexible communication options. And, you optimize time for your passions, family, interests. The best thing I’ve heard so far is a colleague saying: “Kris isn’t in the office on Tuesdays, so we’ll just meet on Weds. Don’t worry, she’ll get the job done”.
The best advice from the Work+Life book was to convince your manager of what’s in it for him or her—a better focused, more satisfied, results-oriented employee. And address your manager’s fears up-front as a workgroup, not individually! Do this without putting the onus on your manager. She or he cannot give you your work+life fit. It is yours to own and manage.
Be an innovator in your company and lead the W/L Fit effort. Everyone will benefit!

Surprise Demographic: Moms buying books for adult children—sons and daughters.

Shortly after my book was published, I began to notice an interesting demographic. Baby boomer mothers with adult children out of college were attending my speeches and buying the book for their sons and daughters. How did I know? When I was signing books, person after person would say, “Oh, sign it to my son, Tom. He just had his first child and wants to find a way to see him more.” Or, “Oh, sign it to my daughter, Pam. Her fiancé just got transferred and she wants to try to telecommute so that she can stay with her job.”
I am particularly impressed by this group of women, because they are often stepping beyond their own personal experience to see how things can be better and different for their own children. They often say things like, “I see how much technology has changed my own life, and I agree with you that my son could use it to work differently too,” or “You know in my day, you either worked or didn’t work. And the jobs that were available to women, not to mention mothers, were few and far between. My daughter has a great job, and I’d love for her to find a way to do it differently so that she could continue working but still have time to date, get married, and have kids.”
So hats off to these visionary, forward-thinking moms! It shows me that even when your kids are out of college, you are always looking for ways to help make their lives better.

Join me on Tuesday, February 7th and you will find:
Commentary – Why work+life “fit” is not just a working mother issue. It’s an everyone issue, especially a men’s issue.
Personal Work+Life “Fit” Innovation…Another success story to inspire!

Organizational Research Review: Whenever I find a piece of important research, I’m going to bring it to your attention. For this first review, I’ll discuss what I consider to be one of the best studies of corporate flexibility ever published. It’s a must read for managers, but it is also a great resource for individuals as they build their business case to support their unique work+life fit proposal. Stay tuned…


2 thoughts on “Myth: “Gen-X Employees Don’t Want to Work Hard” – Time to Stop Blaming, Start Changing

  1. Such a new way of looking at things: thank you Cali! I started my own business after having our 4th child in what I believed to be an attempt to “run a business correctly” and other noble objectives. In hindsight, what I really achieved was my Work+Life fit. You know, I, too, was a New York City commercial banker, and I knew early on that that the crowd bragging on Monday mornings about the number of hours they worked on the weekend was not for me. Thank you for giving a name and understanding to what I was feeling!

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