With different work values, Generations X, Y wait for boomers to move aside

January 14, 2005 | By Jewel Gopwani

As a teenager, Katie Harp loved Kirk Cameron. Posters of the 1980s TV teen heartthrob covered her walls, ceiling and closet. She wore big hoop earrings, listened to Depeche Mode and loyally watched “Beverly Hills 90210.”

Harp, a 27-year-old teacher, is on the fringe of Generation X, and someday soon she could be someone’s boss.

As baby boomers reach retirement age, Xers such as Harp will find opportunities for promotions. But the transition could be rocky and spell changes for the workforce.

To start, there aren’t as many Xers as boomers.

Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, number about 76 million. Counts for Gen vary. Some demographers measure it as the 49 million born between 1965 and 1976. Others say it’s the more than 59 million people born between 1965 and 1980.

While the replacement rate for retiring boomers won’t be one-for-one, most generational experts agree the number of people in their late 20s and 30s falls short of the boomers who will leave the workforce.

As this generation of well-educated and creative minds prepares to take on more management positions, industry leaders worry about decades of institutional knowledge leaving the workforce.

The transition could also mean the end of a clash of generational cultures that has taken place in the workplace since Xers started graduating from college.

There has been a tug-of-war between workaholic boomers and balance-seeking Xers. The so-called antiestablishment slackers generally said no to 60-hour weeks, a choice that has confused some in the boomer generation.

For boomers, “work was the way you identified yourself,” said Phil Gardner, director of Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute. “Xers came on and they’ve introduced the concept of balance in the workplace.”

It’s still early to predict the challenges Gen Xers will face as they manage younger generations. But there’s little doubt the workplace will change as one generation exits and another leaves its mark.

The transition might be more difficult in professions such as nursing and teaching, which already have labor shortages.

Harp, who teaches fifth grade at Morse Elementary School in Troy, Mich., plans to become an administrator, following in her parents’ footsteps.

But the National Education Association says a third of new teachers leave the profession within their first three years. Half of new teachers leave by the 5-year mark, citing better opportunities, family issues and challenges they didn’t expect.

The Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit group Recruiting New Teachers Inc. reports two-thirds of the teaching population will have to be replaced in the next decade.

“The leadership population comes largely from the teaching population, and that has implications that there is a desperate need for highly qualified principals,” said Mildred Hudson, CEO of Recruiting New Teachers.

That shouldn’t be as big a problem in fields that have higher retention rates, such as technology.

Managers need to focus on giving their young workers opportunities to work with veteran workers by emphasizing mentorship programs and pairing employees from different generations together to work on projects, human resources experts say.

That process needs to happen early, said Betty Purkey, manager of work-life strategies at Texas Instruments Inc.

“You can’t sit” boomers “down with 10 other people and have them do a brain dump,” Purkey said. “It’s all those years of that key person working with your young people.”

There are also industry-wide attempts to capture institutional knowledge.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has assembled a group of nearly 40 retirees to consult with auto suppliers on a project basis and address the loss of expertise companies expect as boomers retire.

“As new people come in the industry, there’s a great benefit to having some veterans around to help them get up to speed faster,” said Neil Schilke, managing director of the group’s Automotive Resources Institute.

Michael Earle, a 31-year-old local client representative for IBM Corp., looks forward to a management job but doesn’t want the veterans in his department to leave too quickly.

He confers with those employees and his dad, an IBM retiree, when he needs advice.

“As a company, we need to figure out the best way to leverage those people who will soon be retiring and keep them involved in the company,” Earle said.

If Gen X’s priorities are any indication, the workplace could change when it is in charge.

Over the years, Gen Xers have debunked the slacker theory. But they seem to have broken away from the workaholic habits of their boomer bosses and parents.

“What they saw in that workaholism was divorce, fatigue, illness, substance abuse and one-track lives. And so their generation grew up to say ‘not us,’” said Chuck Underwood, a Cincinnati-based generational consultant.

That might explain the results of a study the Families and Work Institute recently released that shows workers ages 18 to 37 are more likely to view family as an equal or higher priority than work.

Take, for example, 34-year-old accountant Sean Sant, who moved from Ernst & Young in Detroit to Virchow Krause & Co. in Bingham Farms, Mich., in January. He made the move so he could trim his commute and spend an extra half hour with his family at their new home. In choosing his job, Sant also decided against companies that required more than 50 hours during a typical week, outside of tax season.

“Clearly jobs are very important, but you have to put your family first,” he said.

Jason Schwegler, a 31-year-old father of two, said he has aspirations for management. But he isn’t willing to sacrifice too much time with his family to advance.

“I guess my goal in life is to be comfortable, have a comfortable living for me and my family and be happy in what I do. If it happens that I have to be in one place to be content for the rest of my life, then that’s fine,” said Schwegler, an electrical engineer at Siemens VDO Automotive.

While Gen Xers work hard, “they’re more likely to think that work is important but not the only thing in their lives,” said Ellen Galinsky, president and cofounder of the Families and Work Institute.

While businesses already offer some chances to work from home, schedule four-day weeks and share jobs, that flexibility might become more common as Gen Xers enter management.

“There are some people who say the work culture is so strong that it will change the people rather than the people will change it. There are people who say this generation is truly different,” Galinsky said. “So far it looks like this generation argument is winning.”

But the balance of life and work won’t hurt the bottom line, one generational expert said.

“A big Xer watchword is accountability,” said Neil Howe, who is a consultant for generational issues.

That might be due to societal changes that took place when Gen Xers grew up.

The divorce rate hovered near record highs in the early 1980s. Many Xers saw large companies lay off their parents.

“Xers were taught at an early age that, if you want to do something, trust yourself and get it done yourself,” Howe said. “In some ways, this is great for productivity. …In the area of business, I think they are going to be a powerful, influential generation.”

The oldest members of Generation Y are graduating from college and embarking on their careers.

These sons and daughters of soccer moms are diverse, driven, connected and rival boomers in numbers.

Gen Y has been measured as the 72 million people born between 1977 and 1994. Howe, who coauthored a book about the generation, views Gen Y—also called Millennials—as the 100 million-plus people born after 1982.

That might have something to do with the pressure Gen Y’s feel in college, especially as the sizes of freshman classes across the country continue to break records.

“We can’t chill. The pressure is always on,” said Athena Akram, a 23 -year-old biology major at Wayne State University.

There’s pressure to do well in school, please parents, keep up with technology and compete for jobs.

“You’re competing against a whole bunch of people who are probably as smart, who are probably just as determined as you,” said Sidra Khan, a 20-year-old premed student at Wayne State.

Despite the pressure, Gen Y has followed the example of Gen and prioritizes a balanced life.

Akram, a senior, planned to become a doctor, but decided to become a dentist three months ago.

“Medical school is a lot to handle, especially if I want to have kids in three or four years,” she said.

Balance is a priority for Gen Y across the board.

“Boomer managers have to understand that they’re going to give you really hard work for 40 to 45 hours a week,” said Gardner, of Michigan State. “They’re going to draw a line and they’re going to say enough is enough.”

This plugged-in generation is also very connected to their parents.

It is common to see a college student whip out a cell phone to talk to mom or dad when faced with a decision at school, said Kelley Bishop, executive director of Career Services and Placement at Michigan State University.

A parent’s role could spill into the workplace. Gardner said the parents of Millennials are getting involved in salary negotiations. Employers could even hear from parents after delivering a poor evaluation, Howe said.

Though it’s too early to tell how they’ll affect the workplace, Gen Y’s so far have been model citizens, Howe said. They’re organized. They work well in teams. They volunteer and show promising leadership skills.

In the book “Millennials Rising” (Vintage Books, $14.95), Howe wrote: “Over the next decade, the Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged—with potentially seismic consequences for America.”