Friday, June 29, 2007

Transformation vs. Assimilation

I've just noticed a very interesting thing. Generational differences have had a much larger impact on work environments than the large influx of women into the workplace ever had. When I give speeches, when I hear from my children about their workplaces, when I listen to the questions working people ask and the issues they care about, I realize that work has changed utterly in response to the attitudes and demands of people under 35. It's routine for people in once-formal workplaces to dress as if they were bar-hopping or heading to a baseball game rather than going to work. The definition of "working like a dog" isn't what it once was even in sweatshops like law firms and investment banks. A surprisingly large number of working people can be found "available" on gchat during business hours. My website gets most of its hits during business hours, and I'm sure it's not alone. Everyone seems to feel Friday afternoon is for leaving early or, if you do stay in the office, for doing something other than work.

People in post-baby-boomer generations seem to feel none of the pressure - internal or external - to conform to the traditional definitions and requirements of work institutions founded by white men in the 19th or early 20th centuries and maintained largely by same up to and including today. Younger people have stamped their mark on these work institutions indelibly and apparently without a lot of sturm or drang. Women, on the other hand, particularly in the years just before and after I joined the work force in 1979, felt strong pressure - internal and external - to conform, to fit ourselves into the establishments in which we were determined to succeed. Instead of obliviously being who we were and expecting the organizations to assimilate us, we engaged in various versions of trying to remake ourselves in the traditional white male mode. Dressing for success (if you'll forgive the expression), denying, resisting or trying to keep under wraps traditional female activities like marrying, having kids, looking sexy, giggling, crying and so forth, taking sexual harassment in stride, never "going to lunch" but always "going to a lunch meeting" - most of us thought the price of success was being as much like men as possible. Even I, someone who has never been much of a panderer or an appeaser, didn't understand for years that my differences were competitive advantages I could use, differentiators that helped me far more than they hurt me. And to this day, even as they wear their stilettos and flip-flops to the office, women worry about being considered slackers or somehow frivolous or unprofessional if they don't approach work like men

How interesting - and eye-opening - that younger generations are apparently oblivious to the ways in which people with old white guy attitudes disapprove of them. Younger generations aren't ambitious in the same ways. They have different goals for their careers and a different definition of both where work fits in their lives and what they're willing to compromise. They evidently have no problem insisting on a work/life balance that would be the envy of anyone who worked in these environments 30 years ago. They change jobs frequently and don't worry about gaps in their resumes. In fact, they seem to assume the availability of more manageable work schedules and to consider opting out altogether if they don't find them to be a more attractive and acceptable option than knuckling under to traditional models - an eye-opener all on its own for career women still fretting about looking like slackers if they ease off a 2200-billable-hour-per-year pace while they bear children or manage families.

And all this blithe younger generation assuming has had a huge and very visible impact on how companies operate. Upper management may still look pretty much like it always has, but it now worries in a big way about offering work/life balance, ongoing education, concierge services, onsite day care (for kids and even pets), and a wide array of other b
enefits designed to appeal to the actual workforce (and not just the people with wives at home to handle all of life's non-work-related vicissitudes).

Of course, the under-35 crowd can enjoy the attitudes and freedoms it does thanks in no small part to the paths blazed by those of us who came before and the ones before us who first broke into the once all-white, all-male domains. Still, I have to hand it to these new generations - they have transformed the look and feel of the work world in a way that career women, even after a much longer time horizon, still have not.

No comments: