Photo courtesy of Mississippi State University Libraries on flickr open source.
As a career coach I have met many clients who are unhappy with their career choices. I worked with a gentleman who made a decision to work in business. Business isn’t his passion, but it provided him with stability and good pay. As he got older, he realized he hated his choice. Being a businessman was not something he was passionate about, and it showed. Even so, he believed it was impossible to pursue a career that made him happy and to also earn a decent living wage. It was how his own father lived his life. These were the values he was brought up with and it is ultimately how he ended up working. He internalized these attitudes and they ended up becoming an absolute truth for him. My client wanted his children to live a more fulfilling life, but he was caught between the importance of a pragmatic career choice and one based on personal passion. As a result, he always told his children and younger peers that a stable career was more important than a fulfilling career.
We all know people who made a career decision based on their own generational beliefs that were formed from their life experiences, and the experiences of the generation that preceded them. The majority of us don’t second guess our career decisions, even if we are unsatisfied with them, and it is all too easy to pass our beliefs on to others.
Here’s an example of someone caught between the crossroads of a pragmatic career choice and their dream career:
We all have that friend who moved out to California to become a movie star, right? I do. He was 35 and considered it the last and biggest push he could make so that he’d always know that he gave it his best effort. I’m sure some thought of him as foolish, but I could not have been more proud. It didn’t even matter what the outcome is or will be. As long as he could make a living out there doing any variety of other things, he could continue to audition, build his portfolio and make connections. Until…
He found out that he has a baby girl on the way. He’s scared. Not only was he never really sure if he ever wanted kids, but he’s still trying to figure out how to take care of himself. His biggest fear, however, is that this is the end of his dreams.
So, he has some big decisions to make in the next year and for the rest of his life. What would your advice to him be?
Chances are good, between us all, that he will get some very conflicting information, and that some advice would be well-intentioned, but potentially unnecessarily detrimental to his future. Furthermore, what he decides to do, and how he feels about it, talks about it, and lives it will make a huge impact on his daughter’s future.
How we advise him isn’t really as much based on what the BEST thing to do would be, but rather what our dominant paradigm is about work. As per my last article, “Are you martyring your dreams?” I wrote about how we shape the next generations’ attitudes about work, mostly unconsciously.
The actions and attitudes of one generation of workers can greatly influence the next generation. Personally, I do not want my children to ever feel limited about their work choices and commitments. My daughters are young, and are forming the next generation of workers. So, what about those of us already in the workforce? Thanks to longer life spans there is an incredible amount of generational diversity in the workplace. Four generations now work together and each of them brings their own attitudes to the job. Each generation also has its own perceptions about the previous and next generations. For example, Millenials are technology savvy, but entitled and lazy. Generation Xers are poor team players. Baby boomers and Traditionalists are slow to adapt and adopt new technologies. These perceptions are largely stereotypes, but each generation does have their own beliefs and values about work that informed and shaped their career decisions. So, what are the attitudes of these different generations? How do our attitudes shape our own beliefs about work? And how do they shape the future of the workforce as a result?
First, let’s start with some common generational scenarios that lead to personal attitudes about work:
Gertrude was born during the great depression and remembers growing up during difficult times. She learned to save her money, hold on to what possessions she had, and generally respected authority. At work she was extremely loyal to her company, gained a great deal of experience, valued stability, and stayed there for much of her working life, putting in regular 9-5 hours. Her lifelong commitment paid off when she eventually made her way into upper-management. Her managerial style was direct and top-down. She preferred to talk face-to-face with her co-workers and subordinates, and would only settle on a phone call if she absolutely had to. Eventually, she became the CEO of the company and retired after more than 40 years of service. Gertrude’s beliefs and life experiences taught her that she needed to work hard, to be cautious, have lifetime loyalty to her employer, and that seniority is important to career advancement. Work is about picking a career, choosing a company to work for, and staying there until retirement.
Ronald was born at the end of World War II. His generation is one of the largest in American society and thanks to its size greatly influenced the direction of the country. He grew up during a time of prosperity, unbridled optimism and a rapidly changing political and social landscape. Ronald was raised to respect authority figures, but thanks to the changing nature of the country, he did not blindly trust the previous generation. Like his father, he believed the right course of action in a career was to pick a company to work for and to expect to stay there for at least a decade. He worked long hours, was on-call during the weekends, was loyal to his employer, and eventually made his way up the career ladder, thanks to his hard work. He essentially lives to work, believing it to be a priority over his personal life. A 60-hour work week didn’t matter, because he had something to show for it. Unlike his parents, Ronald has no plans to fully retire at 65. Ronald believes work is fundamental to his identity and self-worth. He puts in long hours at the office because it is how work “should” be done, and can’t understand why his younger peers aren’t willing to do the same.
Angela was born during the Regan Administration. Her parents worked hard, but they were eventually divorced. She grew up with everything she needed, but had less than her peers with married parents, whom she felt a great need to impress to be accepted. In short, her life growing up wasn’t easy. Her mother worked seven days a week to make ends meet. One day, the job her mother worked at for well over a decade laid her off, and she watched as her mother was forced to take a lower paying job. When she entered the workforce she was determined not to work as hard as her mother, and she was skeptical about staying with the same employer for life. Angela knew working hard was important, but she refused to “live to work.” She found a job with flexible hours that allowed to her work from home, and she isn’t afraid to change employers in order to seek career advancement. Angela grew up with a cynical attitude toward lifetime employer loyalty. She saw first-hand how easily an organization could layoff a longtime worker to make its bottom line. She placed an equal value on the workplace and her personal life, one was not more important than the other. Angela also values independence in her decision-making at work, and is willing to change employers to suit her needs.
Tobias was born during the end of the George H.W. Bush Administration. For the entirety of his young life, Tobias has been surrounded by technology. He doesn’t remember a time without the internet, barely remembers a time without cell phones, and is more at ease talking to friends on Facebook than face-to-face. He is young, highly educated, ambitious, and extremely confident in his own abilities. His parents worked long hours, but they were constantly there for him. Tobias was used to being praised for everything he did growing up. In his eyes, talent often triumphs hard work. It doesn’t matter how a project gets done, just as long as it is done. Life isn’t about working all the time. Unfortunately, he was dealt a harsh blow thanks to the Great Recession. Good paying jobs that match his skillset aren’t as easy to find. He has a lot of college debt, his standard of living isn’t as high as his parents, and the idea of organizational loyalty for life bores him. In other words, spending one’s life at a company doing rote tasks does not appeal to him. Tobias is optimistic. If he gets tired (or laid off) of one job, he can move on to another. He’s flexible, adaptable, and believes strongly in the personal brand he has built through social media. Despite Tobias confidence, he’s found it isn’t very easy to find a job in a field that uses his degree.
What are the generational differences on work attitudes?
In the scenarios I painted for you, Gertrude is from the Traditional generation, Ronald is a Baby Boomer, Angela is a Generation Xer, and Tobias is part of the Millennials. Each generation’s attitudes toward work are shaped by their life experiences and their differences are vast. In general, the older generations (Traditional and Baby Boomers) place a high value on company loyalty. Decades ago, it was common to expect to work for one employer for all (or much) of your life, and to retire from the same employer. Imagine the huge factories that used to dot the landscape of the Northeast and Upper Midwest. For example, a person could work for and retire from Ford (as an hourly employee or salaried management) and live a reasonably comfortable life. The hours were long, but working hard meant you could easily afford to provide for a family, and own lots of expensive possessions. Even a job in the corporate world (throughout all levels), meant long hours and good pay. It didn’t matter if a person worked up to 80 hours a week and rarely saw his or her family. Hard work and long hours were good for the family and society in the long run. The reward was a comfortable retirement could be that could be earned between the three pillars of pension, social security, and personal savings.
Younger generations of workers (Gen Xers and Millennials) grew up rarely seeing their parents, or seeing the stressful effects of long hours at work. Corporate downsizing, high divorce rates among parents, long periods of time without supervision at home (because of the many hours parents had to work), and the rapid rise of new technology caused this generation to seek a better work/life balance. Generation Xers in particular began to question the “workaholic” culture, and placed a value on flexible hours at work. Spending 10 to 12 hours in the workplace isn’t as appealing, nor is working at one company for the entirety of their lives. For many workers, staying 3 to 5 years at a company is a long term commitment, opposed to parents and grandparents who stayed with companies for 15 to 35 years. They want their identity and lives to be meaningful, and not completely attached to their career. Millennials often see their positions at a single employer as ephemeral, and have no qualms about leaving employers after short periods of time. Technology has always been a way of life and thanks to its immediacy, the generation can be impatient. Younger workers don’t believe in slowly working their way up to powerful positions. They are more apt to bypass the work ladder, and expect to take on higher management positions at younger ages with the help of a mentor.
Our beliefs shape our attitudes
Think about your own beliefs and career decisions. How were they influenced?
As we grow up there are three pivotal junctures in our life that shape who we are. From birth to 7-years-old, we observe our family, internalize their actions, and interpret them to be the correct way to live. For example: “Daddy works 10 hours a day and doesn’t like his job. That must be the way all grownups work.” From age 8 to 13 we begin to look outside of our family for role-models to influence our value decisions. “When I grow up I want to be a famous singer!” From the age of 14 to 20 we are influenced by our peers. We use our peers and society to test out our beliefs, to make decisions, start to finalize what kind of person we’ll be, and what our career will be. “Maybe I’ll be a computer programmer, it seems pays OK, and I don’t hate it.”
These major junctures in our life can even influence us in more subtle ways. We could tell a 4-year-old that life as an adult isn’t about fun, but it has to be spent working all of the time. That would become part of their identity, potentially. Or perhaps the young child would grow up, and revolt against this advice, being influenced in the opposite direction. Either way, we would use that advice to define us, and that’s when our strengths emerge, but it is also when a lot of untruths about ourselves are defined. The “truth” you know isn’t potentially true. We don’t have a looking glass into the future.
Going back to our formed beliefs and attitudes, how would you advise someone else in terms of their own future career decisions? Would you tell them that a pragmatic career decision is more important than a passion-driven choice? Let’s return to the example of our father-to-be.
As a member of the older generation, would you tell him that work isn’t supposed to be fun, and is only a means to secure a stable financial future? In other words, should he give up on being an actor and pursue a more stable career because he now has a child to consider? Or as a member of a younger generation, would you tell him not to settle for short-term work beneath his abilities, even if it meant a financially difficult life? I.e., don’t take any job if it’s not related to acting, because of your pride. These are the generational truths we believe in, and that we unconsciously believe should define us and others. Perhaps our beliefs about work and the future workforce need to be brought to the surface and reexamined.
The future will not be like the past. We can predict certain things about the future, but we don’t know what the future will bring. It is possible in the future that 85% of the jobs that graduates will be going for in 15 years from now don’t exist right now. Paul T. Corrigan has stated in his article “Preparing students for what we can’t prepare them for,” that the top ten in-demand jobs in 2010, didn’t exist in 2004. So how do you advise people in their career? How can you tell someone now that their best chance at a job is to settle for possible decisions determined by beliefs, rather than facts? An administrative assistant may be a decent career now, but it may not exist in the future, or may only pay a fraction of what it once did. There’s little authority in guiding people towards a “viable” career path. I’ve found the happiest and most productive people are those with a career driven by their passions. That is the most viable career path.
There was something that my older supervisor told me when I still worked as a recruiter: “Refute your biases.” And while she was mostly taking about refuting biases about people, I think it’s applicable to our attitudes on work. The whole reason I wanted write this is because all too frequently I see people making important career decisions on arbitrary feelings, untruths and things that aren’t real. Think about how different our attitudes would be if we made career decisions based on facts and passion, instead of ingrained beliefs.