Work/Life Balance is a Myth. Blame Generation X.

Can we all agree that in 2017 work/life balance is not a thing? Let me clarify. The idea of work/life balance is a thing. In fact it’s such a thing that there are books, websites, coaches, apps and basically a whole industry dedicated to seeking that which does not exist and maybe never has. You can thank Generation X for perpetuating the myth.

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Throw this out the window.

The push for greater work/life balance in the U.S. began in the 1960s and 70s when record numbers of women began entering the workforce. Working mothers managing the demands of their jobs and raising children brought the issue to the forefront. By the 1980s it was no longer simply a women’s issue, and many high-profile companies created policies and programs that addressed work/life balance.

Generation X was witness to this, and entered the workplace pushing hard for greater work/life balance. Of course, the bosses thought. They’re the slacker generation. But GenX was looking to work smarter, not harder. The truth is that GenX has a strong work ethic, even if it looks a little different from that of their Boomer bosses. While it’s important to GenX to have time outside of work to spend with family and friends, that time allows them to return to work refreshed and recharged. GenX saw technology as the solution to work/life balance issues and pushed hard for it.

We know how that story ends. Our access to technology has created an “always on” mentality. A study by Gyro and Forbes Insights found that 63% of workers check their email every one to two hours when they’re out of the office. We’re not working harder or smarter. We’re working longer.

Let’s finally throw the work/life scale out the window and replace it instead with “work/life integration”. Don’t think of it as a term of surrender, as if work in some way won out, but rather a more accurate descriptor of reality. Work/life integration takes a more holistic view of how work fits with other aspects of a person’s life. It accepts the blurred lines that we know already exist. People work from home and home from work.

The modern workplace is evolving and responding, but it’s a long slog. It’s easier for employees to accept and understand work/life integration than organizations themselves. It requires employers to re-define work as that which gets done, not when or where it gets done. That’s an exercise worth doing. When employees feel trusted and supported in this way, they feel a stronger commitment to the organization.

Optimizing work/life integration can still be challenging, but unlike work/life balance, it is at least attainable. And though the lines between “work” and “life” are indeed fuzzy, it’s important to set boundaries for yourself that make sense for your type of work, work style and employer expectations.

Work/life is not a zero-sum game. Let’s stop treating it like it is.

Leading those who led us: GenX managers and Baby Boomer employees

I was 29 when I landed my first director-level position. I had been at my previous employer since I graduated college and now was in a new organization in an industry I knew nothing about. It was the first time I was going to be managing a budget and people. I was the youngest person on my team with the least amount of industry experience and I was the one in charge. Cue the freak-out.

That was nearly 15 years ago. In today’s workplace, career paths are rarely linear–they regularly zig, zag, stop, start and switch. The result is a workforce as diverse as it’s ever been in terms of people’s age, skills and experience.

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Think managing someone older or more experience is awkward? It doesn’t have to be.

If you’re a GenX manager, this can mean supervising Baby Boomer employees that are older and may be more experienced than yourself. That can be complicated for all involved. Maybe your employee is questioning your ability to lead based on your age or years of experience. Maybe you feel awkward giving feedback to someone who has been with your organization for decades. I sure did.

Though every person is different, there are some generational considerations to keep in mind as you interact with your Boomer employees.

Motivation

The Baby Boomer generation is a very close second to Millennials in terms of size at about 75 million people. Their sheer size bred a spirit of competition that many Boomers learned to thrive on, and which continues to serve them well in a modern workplace that favors a more collaborative approach. Boomers are also motivated by recognition—title, rank , etc. mean something to this group. They love to work hard and they work best when they feel that there is real purpose in the work they do.

GenX managers can leverage these strengths. Invite your Boomers to share their knowledge with your team, even running point on projects that play to their strengths. Asking your seasoned vets to mentor newer team members is a win-win; your less-experienced employees will benefit from additional guidance and your Boomers will feel trusted and valued.

Work style

Boomers and GenX-ers are both known for working hard, but their approaches and work styles can look pretty different. Boomers came of age in a workplace that valued seat/face time, throughput and productivity. Generation X turned that on its ear as they sought greater flexibility and work/life integration—both realized through advances in technology.

For GenX managers of Boomer employees, you may want to add a little more structure and consistency to the way you run your team. Standing meetings and regular reporting work well for this group.

Also, don’t assume that your Boomers scoff at, or even fear technology. Give your Boomer team members opportunities to get exposed to new tools and skills that can make them more efficient and effective.

Communication

Unlike Millennials, Generation Z and even some of Generation X, Baby Boomers do not require frequent feedback. In comparison to other generations, Boomer prefer infrequent, formal feedback (e.g. standing progress meetings, performance evaluations, etc.) They also prefer to communicate face-to-face as well as by phone.

Advice for GenX bosses: adjust your style. That’s not just for your Boomer employees, that’s for any member of your team. It’s your job as a leader to get the best out of your employees and set them up for success. So if that means talking on the telephone even though you’d much rather email, or having more meetings than you’d like because that’s what your people are responding to, that’s what you do.

Don’t make it weird

Boomers get it. You’re the boss. Org charts matter to this generation. They understand hierarchy. You don’t have to have an awkward conversation about age differences or years of experience. Don’t feel you have to show off or have to prove something. Just be a good boss.

Good leadership isn’t generation-specific. The characteristics of Generation X and Baby Boomers are pretty complementary, and it’s up to you as a leader to allow your team members to play to their strengths. Enjoy and encourage the diverse perspectives, knowledge and skills of your multi-generational team.

Fellow GenX managers, what’s been your experience managing Boomers? Awkward or awesome? Boomers–what’s it like on the other side of the table? Share your feedback in the comments.

Next man up: Generation Z will save the world but probably kill television.

If you are tired of society’s obsession with Millennials (no more so than Millennials
themselves, I assure you), then Generation Z is here to rescue you. Born between 1996 and 2010, postmillennial Generation Z has more in common with their GenX parents than with their Millennial counterparts, though it can be tempting to lump them together.

I work in Higher Education marketing, and our industry has been tracking Generation Z for quite some time. I also happen to be the parent of a GenZ-er who turns 16 today. Although about half of GenZ (including mine) still has some growing up to do, here’s what we know about this generation so far:

  • They are their parents’ children. Generation Z shares many of the characteristics of their GenX parents. They are often described as pragmatic, self-aware and resourceful. Their childhood included a Great Recession and near constant war. Just like Mom and Dad, there are no rose-colored glasses on this crew.
  • GenZThey are special snowflakes (in a good way). If Millennials are known for their collaboration, the pendulum swings back with GenZ. This generation is highly individualistic and competitive, so put those participation trophies away. They want recognition for their specific achievements.
  • They want to change the world. There is a reason why the “The Hunger Games”’ and “Divergent” series were such a hit with this crowd: that’s pretty much how Generation Z feels. Like the generations that came before, they feel they’re inheriting a world full of problems created by others and that it’s up to them to fix it. Sixty percent of Generation Z wants to have jobs that have a social impact the world, and 26% of 16- to 19-year olds currently volunteer.
  • They’ll be the most educated generation. Or they won’t. As college became more accessible in the last half of the 20th century, each generation has been more educated than the one before. The trend could break with GenZ. This generation got a front row seat to the student loan debt crisis, and it’s got them (and their parents) questioning the value of college. Seventy-five percent of Generation Z believes there are other ways of getting a good education besides going to college.
  • They want to work for themselves. GenZ-ers are true digital natives. This access to technology has allowed them to produce and create from a young age and has stoked a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Moreover, they are not afraid to fail, and view failure as an opportunity to learn and try again.
  • They are brand influencers. Generation Z doesn’t remember a time when social media didn’t exist. Their networks are established and highly engaged. And with $44 billion in buying power, it’s no wonder brands are desperate to make inroads with this generation. For many brands, this means a shift in strategy to appeal to a generation who values authenticity, transparency and personal interaction—and who doesn’t really respond to traditional marketing and advertising.
  • They’ll kill television. Not television as in the-device-that-sits-in-your-living-room-plugged-into-the-wall. That’s been dying for years. I mean television as in content, Netflix included. This generation is not watching it. To them, it’s content from old people who think they know how to talk to young people. It feels fake and forced and GenZ isn’t having it. They’re watching real people do real things on YouTube. According to a Defy Media study, YouTube is the must-have service for 67% of consumers 13-24, while only 36% feel that way about pay TV.

Generation Z at Work

As the first wave of GenZ enters the workplace, it may be easy to confuse them with Millennials. They too want a sense of purpose to their work, favorable work/life integration and flexible office arrangements. But the similarities fade when it comes to communication styles (short and visual for 8-second GenZ attention spans), salaries (GenZ highly focused on earning and saving) and job-hopping (only 16% of high school seniors say they anticipate frequent moves throughout their career).

And perhaps the biggest surprise from the generation who is growing up with a smart device within reach at all times? They prefer face-to-face communication.

So Boomers, GenX and Millennials: consider yourself on notice. Get ready for the next complex generation to enter the workplace. And enjoy Game of Thrones while you still can.

The Open Office Concept is Dead. Thank a Millennial.

I began my career as a technical writer for a software company at the end of the 1990’s. This was right before the dot com bubble burst, and everyone was in love with the tech industry. Much was being made about the office spaces and employee perks of various tech startup companies. Jeans everyday. Free food and coffee. Nap rooms. Foosball tables and arcade games. Tech companies were pulling out the stops in order to keep their employees in the office and working. I’d see pictures of cool people in converted warehouses with no walls and ultra-modern minimalist furniture and I’d feel so envious. I worked in a suburban office park. You couldn’t tell my software company from the insurance office down the hall. I had a regular old office with walls that went all the way up to the ceiling and a door. How lame.

openoffice2The tech bubble might have burst but the open office trend only got stronger in the early 2000s. When management found out it was way cheaper to just have a bunch of desks in the middle of an empty room rather than build out offices for everyone, the office configuration that made its mark in tech companies and advertising agencies began appearing in more traditional sectors such as accounting, engineering and even law.

We don’t have to waste valuable time listing all the problems that an open office creates, though several come to mind immediately. Lack of privacy is probably at top of the list. Cube farms aren’t much better in that regard–anyone in that configuration can tell you there are no secrets among cube mates. The open office is supposed to encourage collaboration—and it certainly can, especially if employees are doing the same or similar work. The problems start when collaboration stops and focused work begins. Open offices allow for constant interruptions, and recent studies show that productivity actually declines in an open office environment.

Beyond the open office’s negative effect on actual work output is the emotional impact that it can have on employees. The violation of psychological privacy erodes productivity, lowers morale and breeds distrust. Employees in cubicles are interrupted 29% more than employees in private offices, creating stress and exhaustion. Earbuds have become the universal “don’t-even-think-about-talking-to- me” signal, whether people are actually listening to music or not.

The open office concept is dead. Millennials killed it. We should thank them.

Rising up in place of the open office are flex offices (also known as hybrid offices) and remote offices. Flex offices might have a variety of workspaces: private offices, open workstations, conference/collaborative spaces and soundproof work areas. There is no assigned seating; your work environment is dictated by the type of work you are doing at any particular time.

Additionally, the number of remote workers continues to grow in the U.S. In 1995, just 9% of the population telecommuted. Today, that number is closer to 40% and continues to climb. Employers have a lot to love in this arrangement: in addition to reduced overhead, employees who telecommute are more productive, have higher morale and are less likely to leave their position or organization.

In order for both of these models to be effective, it requires a workforce that is comfortable with technology and sees less of a separation between “work time” and “home time”. For the Millennials who grew up on the technology that keeps us in constant connection, those lines have always been blurred. Millennials don’t view remote working as a perk. It’s an expectation. It’s life.

Employers are responding, for several reasons. One is that many companies are very focused on attracting and retaining Millennials and are completely changing their workforce cultures in order to do so. Another is that, for many employers, remote set-ups are cheaper. What’s better than low overhead? Lower overhead!

A third reason, and perhaps the most compelling one for organizations considering doing away with cube farms once and for all, is that the company will usually get the better end of the deal. Studies show workers in a remote environment are more productive and work 5-7 more hours per week then their in-office counterparts.

Much data exists to prove the economic benefits of both flex and remote offices. I encourage you to reach out to your organizational leaders to explore the possibilities.

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Boomers and early GenX-ers don’t have to Google this.

Or, you can use the Les Nessman approach. Don’t forget to air-knock.