Fewer and fewer Gen X workers have any interest in taking the boss's job. Boomers call them lazy. The reality isn't quite that simple.
Author PAUL KIX Illustration Alex Nabaum
ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX NABAUM
MOST DAYS, DAVID LOOKS AROUND the office and feels sorry for his boss. There he is when David walks in, hunched before the computer, faint pink and orange light coloring the office windows — and there he remains when David leaves, after dark. David, who works in technology in Massachusetts and asked that his last name not be used, is in his early 30s and just had his first child. When he sees his boss, a badly overworked 50-something with three kids, he shudders. “If I think about the times I’m happiest,” David says, “it’s never about a customer. It’s always related to vacations and family and friends.” All of which is a long way of saying David doesn’t want his boss’s job.
He’s not alone. A recent survey by OfficeTeam, a California outfit that specializes in job placement, found that 76 percent of employees had “no interest” in gaining their manager’s position. Because workers in their 30s and 40s would in theory stand to gain the most from a promotion — they’ve recently had kids or bought a home or saddled themselves in some other way with the full weight of adult responsibility — the poll quickly got the media’s attention. Baby boomer commentators tended to interpret the results as an affirmation of what they had long suspected about the members of Generation X: They’re slackers, even now, even in this economy, and even with kids to feed and mortgages to pay.
But a closer look suggests a different explanation. According to a raft of academic research that examines sociological trends among generations, Gen-Xers aren’t quitters — they’re family-oriented. Unlike their boomer parents, who admitted in one study to feeling most at home at work, they want to go to work and then go home so they can cook dinner for their kids and put them to bed.
“For [Generation X], it’s about efficiency: ‘What is actually needed in this situation, and how do I get the most from it?'” says Neil Howe, a historian, economist, demographer and co-author of numerous bestselling books about generational differences. This adeptness is important because of how involved they are in their children’s lives, Howe adds. “That’s one big defining characteristic of Gen-Xers.”
The emphasis on hearth and home may come from what little of it Gen-Xers found in their own childhood years. They remember the lonely afternoons and early evenings, their late-working parents too harried to be heavily involved in lives other than their own. “In some ways, it’s a return to the ideals of [Gen-Xers'] grandparents’ generation,” says James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a research firm focused on shifts in the consumer landscape, which has spent time studying the surprising behavior patterns of Generation X.
Gen-Xers’ family time is doubly precious in large part because it’s so scarce. Howe’s research shows that Generation X employees are, paradoxically, working more hours than their parents did at this age — and just to make the same money. Paul Kershaw, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, calls today’s parents “Generation Squeeze”: They left college carrying debt that was an order of magnitude greater than what their parents shouldered; they entered the workforce right before the Internet bubble burst; their wages, if they were middle-class employees, remained stagnant thereafter; and if they had the means to buy a home, the housing bust ensnared them. (Chung’s research shows that 50 percent of Gen X homeowners are now underwater, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.) “It can be brutal, keeping everything going,” Kershaw says.
So to be the parents they want to be while staying solvent, Gen-Xers are working smarter. Technology allows them to work on their own time, Howe says. Email, Skype and Internet-everywhere connectivity give many the option to arrange their own schedules. (Indeed, a study last year by the Telework Research Network found a 61 percent increase since 2005 in employees working from home.) Howe says more Gen-Xers are negotiating flexible schedules when starting a new position — which is another reason they don’t want the boss’s job. In the eyes of resourceful younger workers, managers are often 20th-century relics, reliant on a regimented routine in a centralized location, Howe says. As David from Massachusetts puts it, “I know there’s a better way.”
PAUL KIX, an editor at ESPN the Magazine and father of three, confesses to occasionally checking his smartphone during story time.
Forget the corporate ladder — what Gen X and Gen Y employees really want is a corporate lattice. The accounting firm Deloitte LLP first noticed this about a decade ago. Though the firm offered dozens of flexible work programs, employee satisfaction kept declining. The problem was Deloitte’s corporate structure, which was still patterned on an Eisenhower-era model in which moms stayed at home and dads never altered their climb from entry level to upper management. What employees wanted, Deloitte vice chair Cathleen Benko discovered, was for their career responsibilities to bend to those at home. The so-called lattice that Deloitte subsequently developed allows workers to move up or down the chain of command as their lives and outside obligations change, and without judgment from the executive class. For employees at Deloitte, “this approach is far more appealing” than what they’d find elsewhere, Benko noted in Mass Career Customization, a book she co-wrote with Anne C. Weisberg. The company formally launched the lattice in 2008, and employee satisfaction has been up every year since.