Changing of the Guard: Fewer “Workaholics”

I’ve heard that Baby Boomers have workaholic tendencies, while Generation X and Millennials are more attuned to work-life balance. I can believe it, because as a Generation Xer myself, I can say I have zero workaholic tendencies, and having these tendencies would be contrary to the slacker stereotype of my generation.

It is just a stereotype, but, like all stereotypes, there may have been some truth behind it. It’s not that we were just lazy for the sake of being lazy; it’s that we watched our Baby Boomer and Traditionalist generation parents work like crazy, and wondered why they bothered. In some cases, with the Recession of the early 1990s, it turned out, financially, to be for nothing. And in other cases, financial gain wasn’t accompanied by a commensurate level of happiness.

Millennials, though generally more idealistic than Gen Xers, experienced something similar, watching their families, and themselves as young adults, suffer financial setbacks after the stock market crash of 2008.

With Boomers moving out of the workforce, and Generation Xers and Millennials moving in, there may be a shift in culture, in which workaholic bosses are no longer accepted as “just the way things are.”

I saw tips in USA Today last week for how to keep up with a workaholic boss. Rather than thinking how helpful the tips were, I wondered if the more relevant piece would have been on how workaholic Boomers will have to adapt to a workforce that has no intention of keeping up with them.

When I started my present job as a managing editor at a health trade publication, my Boomer boss made the assumption that I would be working weekends. I quickly set him straight about that, offering to stay past 5 p.m. during the week, if necessary, but making him understand that my weekends were off limits to him. There would be no checking work e-mail on the weekend, and I expected never to hear from him between 5:30 p.m. on Friday and 9 a.m. on Monday. Of course, I said it in as nice a way as I could—no use getting fired your first week on the job—but I’m happy I set those boundaries early.

The expectation that an employee will be available at all days and times is not unusual, especially among older employees. One reason for that is there used to be greater job security, and resulting employee loyalty. Employees frequently could stay at the same company their whole career, sometimes for as long as 30 years. So if a company is willing to give you such security, what aren’t you willing to give in return? Today, most companies cannot make that offer to employees, that if they perform well they will have a job for the next 30 years. With less offered to us, companies can expect less in return.

As Learning professionals, is there a lesson that needs to be taught to older employees, who came of age in the workaholic era, in which companies gave much and employees gave much in return? In your leadership training, it’s important to discuss the differences in culture and expectations between older leaders and the younger generations. It’s also important to stress that the reluctance of younger employees to give as much of their personal time to the company isn’t a character flaw; it’s a response to a changing job market. It wouldn’t be fair to expect them to give the same as what an older generation—which received more in return—gave to the company.

One learning idea is to have new manager and leadership training incorporate alternatives to workaholic approaches. That includes an emphasis on the finished deliverable, rather than process of getting it done, and the benefits of offering greater flexibility in working hours and location. Whereas a Boomer came of age at time when the only place to get work done was the office, technology means that, at least part of the time, employees can work where they like. Would it be so terrible that an employee, who finished a project ahead of time (and did a great job) is rewarded by getting to leave early that day or every day the whole week of the project’s completion?

If the goal of workaholic managers is to create the best service for customers and the greatest profitability for the company, they should understand their approach may be counterproductive. Younger employees can react like flooded engines when you overwhelm them with work and don’t give breathing time between projects.

How does your company train older managers and leaders to accommodate the workplace expectations of younger generations?