When my grandfather started his small appliance business, Electra-craft, his ambition for the company was to build it into something he could pass down to his sons. It would be, he thought, a family business that would last for generations. Well, poor Milton had three daughters, and his Baby Boomer sons-in-law had bigger dreams than running an appliance business. My brothers, his Generation X grandsons, worked summers with him, but irons and toasters were no match for Atari and the Cure when it came to holding their interest. Poor Grandpa Milt eventually had to sell Electra-craft. What happened to the job loyalty his generation exhibited?
The Silent Generation (Born Between 1925 and 1945)
Men of my grandfather’s generation (called the Silent Generation, in contrast with the people of the Roaring Twenties) lived through at least one of the World Wars and the Great Depression. They were grateful to be employed at all and worked hard to keep their jobs, no matter what they were. They respected the lesson of the industrial age in which they were raised, which prized the assembly line’s ability to manufacture goods using interchangeable parts. That kind of system required a strict hierarchy of command and control, and a pyramid structure of leadership in which those at the top made all the decisions and those at the bottom did as they were told.
My grandfather and his peers valued loyalty to the organization above all things, so their first priority was the company for which they worked; it always came first, even before family. Those guys (because they were mostly guys) had a unspoken agreement with their employers that if they served faithfully, did what they were told, and didn’t question orders or complain, they would get job security, promotions based on longevity, and eventually a fat pension in return for their dedication.
Baby Boomers (Born Between 1946 and 1964)
The Baby Boomers, my mother’s and father’s generation, also value loyalty, but not as much as the Silent Generation. They were kids during the post–World War II era of optimism, opportunity, and progress, so when they entered the workforce in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, they were after something different than their Depression-era parents had been. Baby Boomers give their all to their jobs, too, but they do it because they’re seeking personal fulfillment. While the Silents were concerned with just getting by, the Baby Boomers really believe that by standing up for themselves, they can have it all. They challenged authority, crusaded for causes, and demanded their piece of the American Dream.
Generation X (Born Between 1965 and 1980)
The Baby Boomers’ optimism may have set up their kids, Generation X, for a letdown. Whereas the boomers are optimistic, their children, who have seen two recessions and the dot-com bust, are skeptical of the employer-employee relationship; they don’t expect job security and they won’t jump through hoops to get it. According to Mike Boyd, managing director of the southern Colorado and New Mexico territories for Right Management, a human resources and career transition consulting company, 84 percent of Gen Xers define loyalty to a company not in terms of length of service, but rather in terms of performance. Boyd cites a Hudson Institute research study that reports 33 percent are at “high risk” for leaving their jobs.
In addition to the adverse events that have shaped their career outlooks, Gen Xers are children of the information age of the 1980s to the present. Their world is fast paced and constantly changing, features the manipulation of information, and rewards networking. It’s a web, not a pyramid. Because they’ve grown accustomed to this kind of instant access and feedback, Gen Xers expect a similar environment in the workplace and are likely to leave if they don’t find it. John R. Throop writes in Mastering the ABCs of Organizations that the top three job requirements of Gen Xers are full appreciation for work done, feeling included in decision making, and sympathetic help with personnel problems. Gen Xers want a sense of the big picture and their role in it, and they want their employers to hear what they have to say. If they don’t feel they’re getting all of that at their current job, they’re more than happy to keep switching positions until they find one that gives them what they want.
Generation Y/Millennials (Born 1981 and Later)
If the Gen Xers grew up with technology, the Gen Yers can’t imagine living without it. They’ve been plugged in since before birth, when they were listening to Baby Einstein tapes, and they’ve had their own cell phones since their little fingers could punch the numbers. “Generation Y is the first in history to have lived their entire lives with information technology,” says Cristina Simón, professor at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid. “It is not easy for them to understand the world without it.”
Like the instant access a mouse-click provides, Gen Yers expect to have a direct impact on the world, and they’ll leave jobs if they don’t see themselves playing a big role and accomplishing personal goals. (Besides, they can always surf the Web for another position.) Gen Yers’ parents have ferried them around to tutors, classes, and sports and allowed them to have a say in decision making from a very early age. They’ve grown up thinking that they have the brains and the tools to make a direct impact on the world, and they expect their employers to be aware of this ambition. Gen Yers’ top three job requirements, according to Throop, are meaningful work that makes a difference, collaborating with committed coworkers who share their values, and meeting their personal goals. They’re not happy being just cogs in a machine, as their grandparents were, so they move around a lot, trying to find jobs that will meet their high standards for personal fulfillment.
Loyalty for a New Generation
“With the arrival of each new generation,” says Simón, “the concept of loyalty has been steadily losing ground.” She attributes this trend to the fact that companies just aren’t able to offer their employees job security, so that, in turn, leads Gen Xers and Gen Yers to be skeptical of their employers and keep moving around to protect their interests. A 2009 survey for Deloitte Consulting LLP found that nearly two-thirds of executives at large companies were concerned about losing Gen Y employees, whom they considered the least loyal and most mobile, and less than half of the executives surveyed were concerned with losing Gen Xers, according to Robin Erickson, manager of Deloitte’s human capital division. Erickson also cites a companion survey of employees that found that only about 37 percent of Gen Xers said they planned to stay in their current jobs after the current recession ends, compared with 44 percent of Gen Yers, 50 percent of Baby Boomers, and 52 percent of Silent Generation workers. Very few of us, it seems, are committing to any employer for life.
And the Next Generation?
Will the trend of eroding job loyalty continue? At what cost? Whether or not job security is a fair price for job mobility, we’ve come a long way from Grandpa Milt and his Electra-craft shop.