Work Culture Clash

by | Mar 29, 2022

Cross-Generational Lessons at the Dawn of a New Work-World Order

By Reanna Karousis for the Fund for Our Economic Future,
with ConxusNEO CEO Sue Lacy and PolicyBridge Executive Director Greg Brown

“People just don’t want to work anymore.”

Anyone who has had even a tangential connection to today’s workforce challenges has heard this refrain—the prevailing lament of many employers who face a constant stream of vacancies and a shrinking talent pool.

While there’s good reason to bristle at this theory—with what it implies about the virtues of whole generations and what it discounts about the choices available to today’s workers and would-be-workers—there’s also, possibly, a nugget of truth in this statement.

Among the working group steering our Where Are the Workers analysis, weekly check-ins occasionally divert from the subject of project management to philosophical questions prompted by this work. We’re economic development leaders and workforce practitioners, yes—but we’re also workers ourselves, having navigated our own career journeys that began decades apart and which have been formed by wide variations in workplace norms, economic conditions and life experiences.

Indeed, our working group is a microcosm of the intergenerational workforce dynamics that play out across the workplaces we’re seeking to understand—with Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, Millennials, and even a Gen Z’er or two joining the conversation and looking at the same information through very different lenses. (Me? I’m a Millennial who entered the workforce at the dawn of the Great Recession and who has felt both the indignation of being labeled an entitled job-hopper and the crushing burden of insurmountable student loan debt and wage stagnation.)

In a recent conversation with the group, ConxusNEO CEO Sue Lacy and PolicyBridge Executive Director Greg Brown, two Baby Boomers with more than 60 years of work experience and career wisdom between them, reflected on the work culture that influenced their own paths, and the implications of cultural shifts on today’s workplaces and the workforce that can make or break them. Listening to them, I found reason for optimism. Generational differences or not, we can find some common ground, if we do just that: listen.

Work (Work, Work, Work) Culture

Sue and Greg share the stereotypical Baby Boomer impulse to work long hours and prioritize their careers. In a workforce dominated by other members of the same generation operating under those same norms, it hardly felt like a choice.

In economic terms, the decision to put work first came—as all decisions do—with opportunity costs.

“I got together with my wife 30 years ago who had three kids. All of the sudden, I had an instant family,” Sue said. “I worked evenings and weekends, and I missed most family meals. I was taking my mom’s advice. She always said we had to work three times as hard as men to build the same career.”

Sue remembered how during one family gathering, her niece and daughter performed impersonations of each family member. For her, they sported a briefcase in a teasing impersonation. While it made her laugh at the time, this pantomime sticks with Sue as confirmation of the outsized role that career has played in her life. “I defined myself by my work,” she said. “And everybody around me knew that.”

As her children grew, Sue saw that while they respected how hard she has worked, they saw something different for themselves. “They watched what I did, and said to themselves, ‘I’m not gonna do that.’ My son has a great corporate job and when he goes on vacation, he doesn’t work. I took three meetings during my recent week off. It’s ingrained, and it’s hard to break yourself of that.”

Greg related. Greg related.

“My father always said, ‘If you’re gonna do something, be fully committed or don’t be committed at all.’ He drilled that into his five sons like it was military dogma,” he said. This became a mantra for Greg as he built his career, doing what he could to make enough room in his life for both work and his wife and kids.

“I would spend some time with them and then, about five-thirty, six o’clock, I’d head back to the office and work late into the night. But I still missed out on volleyball games, basketball games, track meets, just so many things.”

Then, 12 years ago, Greg’s 23-year-old daughter passed away suddenly, leaving behind her two-year-old daughter. As Greg grieved and adapted to life raising his granddaughter, the tradeoffs he made to climb the career ladder came into sharp relief.

“I recognize what Millennials are talking about and why they’re saying there needs to be work and life balance, because I’ve never had that, and I certainly know that it cost me some things I’ll never get back.”

A Deeper Meaning

If work-life balance isn’t a skillset in the Baby Boomer’s work toolkit, one thing is—at least for the likes of Greg and Sue. Both built careers deeply rooted in their personal values and purpose.

Coming of age in the Civil Rights era, watching leaders like Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, and surrounded by a faith community that taught him to value all people equally, Greg shaped his career around what he sees as his life’s purpose.

“I got engaged in activities that look at how we improve conditions for people, especially African Americans. I’ve been doing that for the last 40 years and I will do that until I take my last breath. And I get joy out of it every day.”

Sue’s career, as well, has been rooted in and fueled by a sense of purpose.

“I could have been retired by now with a really good pension,” Sue mused, explaining how she left her career as a National Park ranger to get involved in community organizing, fueled by a similar desire to connect work with purpose. “Out in nature was where I felt most comfortable, but it wasn’t where I could have the greatest impact.”

“At some point we all question, ‘Why are we here?’” she added. “And it’s not to be born, go to work and then die. Work has to have its place, where we can make a contribution, but also where we can make space for the rest of our life.” Greg and Sue suspect that much of the recent culture shift has been driven by the same desire to find meaning in work, amplified and accelerated by the societal crises that have unfolded over the past two years. “I think it made a lot of people stop in their tracks and start to question, ‘Where the heck are we going, and why?’” Greg said.

New Terms and Conditions Apply

As I see it, two lessons emerged from this conversation with Greg and Sue. First, today’s workforce has a more complete picture of the opportunity costs as they negotiate how to spend a finite amount of time. Living through a global pandemic seems to have that effect. Second, work without a sense of purpose is drudgery—and while today’s workers may be in a more favorable position to decline work that feels meaningless, the desire for fulfilling work isn’t novel, or fleeting, or insignificant. Millennials surpassed Gen X as the biggest proportion of the workforce in 2016, and as Baby Boomers continue to reach retirement age and more Gen Z workers enter the labor force, the influence these generations have on work culture will only grow.

Yet, in the employer roundtables happening around the region as part of our analysis, much of what we’re hearing from participating employers is focused on figuring out what’s wrong with today’s workers—and not so much about what might be wrong with today’s work.

I suspect most employers have their own stories of missing important time with family, of going in early and working late because that’s what was expected of you. You’ve paid your dues. You’ve endured the less humane aspects of work to get to where you are.

What did it cost you? And would you blame the generations coming up behind you for asking if it was worth it?

Maybe people really don’t want to work anymore—or at least, not under the terms of the last fifty years. And employers eager to solve talent challenges might consider whether they’re right.