Survey Findings

Finding Nine: Boomers Value Work Ethic, Xers Value Market Ethic

Anyone who remembers young Boomers in the 1960s and ‘70s might be surprised that they are now the hardest-working, most perfectionist generation—but it’s true. On our survey, nearly two-thirds of older Boomers “strongly agreed” that they “believe in the work ethic—whatever is worth doing is worth doing perfectly,” a share that declines strongly by age.

The reverse question generated a mirror-image response. Boomers were by far the most likely to disagree when asked whether they believe in working “only so long as it adds value for the client or customer—working harder or longer is pointless.” The share who disagreed dropped particularly sharply from younger Boomers to older Gen Xers.

Indeed, the big divide on the question of work-ethic versus market-ethic is between Boomers and Gen Xers. At every age, Boomers have brought a sense of perfectionist zeal to anything they have pursued. In their youth, it was the passionate crusades of the 1960s and ‘70s; as they entered midlife, it became the obsessive quest for meaningful careers. Boomers are more likely than other generations to describe their work as a “calling” or themselves as “workaholic.” They see mastery and perfection as a worthwhile goal for its own sake, and they willingly bring their work lives home into their private lives. For Boomers, to paraphrase an old ‘60s slogan, “the professional is personal.”

Gen Xers are a whole different story. They entered the workplace in the 1980s and ‘90s with a new bottom-line outlook: Extract the maximum advantages from work (pay, bonuses, free time) with the minimum cost to your personal life. Gen Xers popularized the concept of work-life balance, seeking flexible hours and telecommuting to get the most out of their personal lives. To this market-oriented generation, perfection for its own sake seems inefficient and unproductive when the objective is to provide value to customers on the other end.

This basic work-style divide causes friction between Boomers and Xers in many workplaces, making it all the more important for each of these generations to see and understand the motivations of the other.