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Steak or waffles? Overcoming the sticking point of work ethic


With four generations in the workplace, there are vastly different definitions of what it means to have a good work ethic. Don’t avoid the tensions; get your team talking about these questions:

  • Does it matter how many hours you work if you get your work done?
  • Do you have to come in to the office, or can you work from someplace else?

Awkward silence might follow at first, but that’s okay. It’s important for teams to spend some time understanding the generational differences around work ethic by finding the common need – and that need is fairness and balance. No one wants to feel cheated or taken advantage of, and everyone wants more balance in life. Unless older generations understand the reasons why GenXers and Millennials view work ethic differently, they’ll continue seeing them as “slackers.” In the same way, the younger generations must seek to understand Traditionalists and Boomers by learning about the world in which they grew up.

Think of work like a meal: the older two generations see work as the steak and everything else in life as the side dishes. The younger two generations see life as more of a waffle, where work is one quadrant and everything else makes up the other three squares. (So please, boss, keep your work syrup off the other three squares of my waffle.)

Traditionalists, the closest to the farm of all the generations, are the most confident that hard work pays off. They did much of the work that younger generations take for granted – they organized into unions and pushed for five-day work weeks, consistent shift hours, and the same pay for the same job. But despite this, they don’t actually hold the record for working the most hours.

The Baby Boomers win the prize for most hours worked because they had to compete with so many others of their generation to get a job or get ahead. One of the ways they differentiated themselves was to come in before (and stay later than) their bosses. Boomers also pursued self-actualization at work. They had “careers,” while Traditionalists had jobs. Boomers kept work at the center of their lives in the hopes that work would provide them with excitement and achievement.

GenXers don’t expect these things to quite the same degree as Boomers. They have had many jobs (and bosses) they haven’t liked, yet they stayed because they needed the money. But they’re also desperate for work-life balance because of their incredibly high expectations for themselves as parents. Xers know they will have to work some evenings and weekends to get through a work crisis, taking away from family time, so they feel it’s only fair to make some personal calls or do some personal web surfing during office hours. (Just make sure the work crisis is an actual crisis and wasn’t caused by someone else’s poor planning.)

Millennials have high expectations, but they’re the only generation that doesn’t cite work ethic as one of their principal distinctives, nor do they rate themselves as work-centric like Traditionalists and Boomers. After all, they saw their Boomer parents working fifty weeks a year and then trying to make up for it in a two-week, over-the-top vacation. Things never balanced out. Another reason Millennials aren’t as work-centric is because financially, they don’t have to be. They have less financial pressure because today, there is very little stigma about moving back in with parents. Overall, they see work hours as more porous than the previous generations, but in their minds that doesn’t make them less hardworking, because they know they can make up the hours later. Millennials want it all – they want to succeed, but they prioritize friends and family higher than anything else. While flexible working arrangements are important to them, employers should also know they’re not the most important thing. Like the other generations, Millennials are also looking for good pay, strong benefits, a stable company, respectful managers, and interesting work.

If employers want to work well with younger generations, they need to begin to focus on results rather than hours. This places the emphasis on business necessities, where it needs to be, rather than on generational preferences. I’ve worked with hundreds of organizations whose executive teams worry that flexible work arrangements like telecommuting or working from home will lower productivity and kill communication. (Personally, I have trouble relating to their fears, as I’ve spent all but two years of my career working from home and proving that I can get more done without interruptions.)

By creating a dialogue around generational sticking points like work ethic, we can help our teams to create more flexible answers to these issues. Let’s keep our generational preferences from dominating the discussion, instead seeking to understand why other generations define work ethic differently than we do.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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