Friday, October 24, 2008

Are 20-Something Workers Out of Line or On to Something?

I'm a regular contributor to Brazen Careerist, a blog and columnist network for twenty-something professionals. I'm interested in news about how my generation is changing and growing into the workplace, and I'm also fascinated by how the media and the larger corporate culture views us. Unfortunately, it's not all good.

The media thrives on stereotypes. And the ones about Generation Y are mixed. According to common wisdom, we're flexible, innovative, enthusiastic and technically savvy. But we're also arrogant and entitled--we're young upstarts who want a flexible workplace, an influential job, and great work-life balance right away. There's more info on this here, here and here, if you're interested.

I can see how this attitude can chafe on veteran workers who dedicated their early years to getting ahead. I also have great respect for those with more experience and years in their profession than I do--I jump at a chance for mentorship whenever I can get it. But I also feel very close to those Gen-Y stereotypes, because, well...look at me. I'm a 20-something entrepreneur who discovered a regular job just couldn't deliver the flexibility and control over my life that I wanted--so I abandoned the whole concept.

The traditional workplace doesn't like to bend to accommodate its employees' happiness. And maybe I'm naive about this, but my question is: why not? I'm an extremely hard worker. I am 100% dedicated to my job and I'm great at what I do. I know I could've done some great things for a company that was willing to make me happy. But life is awfully short, and I thought I would get what I wanted more quickly if I struck out on my own than I would with a regular job, hoping my employers came around. I might have missed opportunities to work with great companies by doing this--but they missed an opportunity with me, as well.

The bottom line is this: Generation Y doesn't want to wait to be happy. We've seen our parents pay their dues, only to be denied steady health insurance, deserved advancement or better quality of life--things they sacrificed their best years for. The things Generation Y is purported to want too early--flexibility, work-life balance, quality of life--are the same things everyone would like to have, no matter your generation. When people say my generation is out of line in wanting these things now, my internal response is always something like this: Why should I have to wait to be happy? Is any career goal worth spending my twenties in misery? I guess I have trouble seeing those things as rewards that you have to spend decades in toil to earn, rather than basic human rights.

I realize that you have to work hard to succeed. I do work hard. I work evenings and weekends. I work twelve-hour days. But the rewards I see for this are direct: greater pay, a more successful business, and more time to have fun later. Sometimes in a corporate situation, the rewards for such hard work aren't so directly delivered. There might be no time off later if you put in extra hours now. Your department may simply expect that kind of work as a matter of course, with no special recognition. You may deserve a bonus or promotion but not get it due to company politics that are out of your control. People put up with this for years.

I believe that everyone, no matter their age or place in the company, deserves a reasonable work-life balance, a flexible schedule and great quality of life. I might get people writing in to say that Corporate America would dissolve if such lax rules were in place, but I'm not so sure--if employees are engaged in their work, work in positions that use their strengths to best advantage, and see direct reward for their contributions, they'll work hard. And today's technologies have made remote working possible for people in diverse industries and positions.

People say Generation Y will change the workplace. I don't know if they will or if they'll just wind up settling for the status quo once they have children and mortgages and can't move around as freely. But it's my hope that older generations will take a look at them and think, "why shouldn't they have these things? Why shouldn't I?"


Kevin Leland said...

You go...kiddo! Everyone deserves balance in life. It's great to see someone the same age tattoos, who has her head around such crucial concepts. The jerks that made my generation chase "trickle down economics" carrott for all these years,all for nothing, are the ones out of line. That's why you are mentoring me! Thanks by the way. -Kevin

Carol ReMarks said...

I can only speak of MY experience in the work place. I'm a 41 year old single mother and have military background so keep that in mind.

We have a lot of 20-somethings at our workplace and quite frankly they walk around feeling "entitled" to all sorts of perks. They come in late and complain about everything. I'm sure this is not the norm. I hope not anyway.

Unknown said...

VERY interesting post, Jen! I especially like how succinctly you summed up what happened to your parents' generation. Since my parents are decidedly older than yours, let me throw out a thought on this.

I watched my dad work his arse off only to lose his job at 44 when his boss laid everyone off. This was in the late 70s. Dad lost pension, benefits, vacation money, and a job in one day. He got another job, but at half what he made. Had he not had mad skills (superb welder) there would've been little for him because this was when the entire country had fallen headfirst into recession. Lines at the gas pumps and all. My parents are doing okay now, but it took them a long time to build back up and it took Mom's obsessive frugality to get them there.

Bottom line - job security disappeared around 1978 and hasn't returned. Where once there was such a thing as employee loyalty to the job and employer loyalty to the employee, it's now bottom-line driven and employees, who feel no connection to the company, change jobs much more often.

Maybe that's why we expect that Beamer or that Mercedes now. Second home? Now. These were once things we worked toward, not got and then worked to pay for.

I sit here aging as we speak and all I can see ahead of me is work. I can't retire. It won't happen, especially given the huge drop in the market and what that's done to my retirement accounts. My only out would be the lottery or a best seller. Beyond that, work until they dig the hole. In fact, if I'm on deadline, they'll have to dig around me - I can't miss a deadline! LOL

I could be frugal like my parents. I am to some extent (shoes being the exception!). But it's no longer possible to save for retirement. Prices are out of control, investments are tanking, and IF there's Social Security by the time I'm too tired to work, it's going to be so minimal that Wal-Mart will have one more greeter to deal with (me).

There's no reason on earth why ALL generations shouldn't expect more. I'm a big believer in paying your dues at ANY age and being compensated for it. What unnerves me is the attitude of entitlement - and that's prevalent not just in the 20s age bracket, but well into the 30s and early 40s. Wall Street is a prime example of those wanting it all NOW without paying their dues.

Off my soapbox. :)) Thanks for bringing the topic up. It would make for an excellent study on how employment and attitudes have changed with each generation. I don't think 20-somethings are necessarily expecting the world on a platter, but they are demanding more than crappy just-above-minimum-wage pay, and who can blame them?

Minion said...

Can I just say that being a 20 something minion I've had to put up with a lot of sterotypes. I think that our elders forget that we have all put ourselves into financial black holes to achieve university degrees for jobs that twenty years ago only required a secretarial degree or high school diploma.

Generation Y has been asked to take onto its shoulders a tremendous amount of fiscal responsiblity and make very difficult choices before we can embark onto our life long careers. Is it really any wonder that we feel as if we should be making the most of whatever job we achieve?

Now, as I struggle to pay back my mounting student loans in an economy looking bleaker each day I wonder whether college was the right choice for me, if I can find a part-time job at a local bookstore to supplement my income, and why I am in a 'profession' that demands so much edcuation and pays so little?

Sorry, I'm ranting and I apologize. I don't feel that I'm entitled to anything because of my education or age-- but I do think that its only fair that employers accept that if the want the 'best and brightest' they should be willing to pay a liveable wage.

Unknown said...

minion, I understand your point, but you make the assumption that many of us over 29 haven't paid for college. There are plenty of college-educated 40-somethings. :)

For me, my degree came in 2003, so I'm paying current tuition rates. And I'm paying today's rates, which are comparable to the rates in the 70s and 80s, given that the wages and cost-of-living comparisons equal things out.

For what it's worth, I totally agree on the wages employers should be offering. There was a girl at work who had four years of experience and she was making less than the admin. Why? No one can live on $25K a year, but there she was doing her best and staying loyal to a company that didn't deserve her loyalty. She's now about 5 years older and wiser, and she makes three times that - and rightfully so.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Kevin: That's totally the point--I feel like many of the things Gen Y wants sooner are things that everyone should want. If we all teamed up to demand these things of employers, I bet they'd listen.

@C.A.: I'm not sure if it's the norm or not, to be honest--I definitely advocate working with employers to establish a flexible schedule that allows workers to come in late and leave late if they want, but not general lateness and absenteeism.

@Lori: I agree totally--and I completely understand the rush. I was always so frustrated when people told me to expect a lot of the things i wanted when I retired. That was way too long to wait. And now I'm not sure if retirement is in the cards for me either, but it's a long ways off yet--who knows? I'm going to keep plugging away at that future best seller and you should too.

I do understand where the rush comes from, and I understand wanting to skip paying dues--I've definitely experienced instances where I've paid mine only to lose out in the end, and I think a lot of people have seen that with their parents as well. It's enough to want to demand returns right now, not later, even if these returns are traditionally earned.

@Min: That's another really good point. An entire post could be written about how liberal arts jobs pay crap wages and we're all struggling with enormous debt. There is too much glamour attached to these jobs, in my opinion--too many people willing to work for peanuts just to be in the industry--and that sours the market for all of us. Writing has that problem too. It's like a cancer.

Minion said...

I can see why you might think I was saying that-- but actually, I wasn't. I know loads of people in their forties (my mom got her her BA in 1998 at the age of 40 and then her masters in 2004) who have degrees.

For the past two years I've worked as a PA to a high level director. This is the type of job that could be done and was done without a college degree up until very recently. I am speaking from personal experience and have found that many positions which now require degrees did not do so in the past. I'm not saying that people who did those jobs in the past did not have qualifications or degrees, I'm just saying that now they are mandatory before you can even apply, which I feel is unfair.

My first job in publishing paid $25K a year and this was considered a 'competitive wage'. I struggled to get by and my next job paid a little bit more. Now, almost four years into my publishing career I'm still at admin level jobs and only just beginning to see the finanical light at the end of the tunnel. Like Jenny suggested, working in publshing does make you feel as if you are selling out the cause because you are forced to take such low wages. Its a horrible trade off, but I do love working with books.

Sorry for any confusion my earlier comments might have caused!

Unknown said...

You and I agree completely, minion. :)) The wages are abyssmal. I had a job in 1999 as a data entry clerk earning $30K (and I had to fight to get it to $30K). When I left that position, guess what? They suddenly required a BA/BS for a job that was so simple a 5 year old could do it (I wish I were kidding - most boring job on the planet). And the pay? $23K.

The problem in that office, and perhaps in many offices, is that the bonus for the office manager was directly related to the amount of money she saved. That included salaries, office supplies, etc. When we had to requisition the admin for a pen, I knew it was time to get a new job. ;))

Anonymous said...

20 somethings that I know, including myself all have issues with the way things are run in corporate America. Maybe we are just selfish, but I think it is more than that myself.

Debra said...

LOL, I just cracked up reading these comments. As a self employed baby boomer... I am out of the "JOB" loop. But I was in it deep for many years... and when I hire someone it's usually a crap shoot - what will the work ethic be?

When I hire someone, they accept the wage and hours I am paying for. The money I earn in my business is hard earned and I don't want to ever waste it.

When you sign on the dotted line that you will work for me - You have said yes that you accept this wage and that you will be on time and that you will "work" during that time.

That's it. That's what you are entitled to. That is what I was entitled to as an employee.

Because I didn't want to accept that "entitlement" any longer, I started working for myself.

I make less money, I have less benefits, I have to provide my own retirement package. But... it was a choice.

You all have a choice. Please stop looking for the "easy button".

Until all the bosses and managers are from the Gen Y age group, you will be fighting an uphill battle.

Okay... climbing down from the stage now... on to working my butt off. :)