Kiersten Essenpreis for BI
In January, I published a story on how loyalty died in the American workplace. The response to the story was huge: I received more emails and LinkedIn messages about it than I had for any other piece I’ve written in my 14 years as a journalist. And what struck me most were the readers who wanted to tell me that I got something wrong.
In the story, I wrote that people seem to divide into two groups when it comes to the decline of workplace loyalty. “On one side,” I asserted, “are the bosses and tenured employees, the boomers and Gen Xers. Kids these days, they gripe. Do they have no loyalty? On the other side are the younger rank-and-file employees, the millennials and Gen Zers, who feel equally aggrieved. Why should I be loyal to my company when my company isn’t loyal to me?“
To my surprise, a lot of older readers took issue with getting lumped into the pro-loyalty camp. “Loyal GenX – Are You Kidding?” read the subject line of one email from a Gen Xer. Someone else wrote, more gently, “While I feel you’re spot on with most of your facts you’ve got gen x all wrong.” They added: “My generation leads in workplace dissatisfaction and realized 2 decades ago that there was no more corporate loyalty.”
We’re used to hearing 20-somethings complain about the state of corporate America today. But I didn’t expect to receive such an outpouring of dismay and disillusionment from seasoned workplace veterans. I’d written the story for young people, as a defense of their decision to rebel against the notion that we owe our employers a debt of gratitude. Instead, I seem to have unintentionally tapped into the quiet frustration of more experienced employees. After all, it’s the boomers and Gen Xers who actually remember a time when their companies treated them better. For them, the broken “psychological contract” I described in my story isn’t some historical artifact. It’s their lived experience. “You summarized everything I experienced in the last 38 years of my career,” one reader wrote.
Readers told me they have watched employers renege on the social contract in a variety of ways. One boomer, a retired banking executive, acknowledged that he himself was lucky to have spent more than 30 years with a single company that treated him well. But starting in the 1980s, he watched as other businesses caved to the whims of Wall Street, cutting employee benefits to squeeze out every last penny for shareholders. Today, he wrote, “Corporate greed is paramount at the expense of everything else.”
A slightly younger reader, who graduated from college in 1993, had a pension at his first job. Then, to the great outrage of his older colleagues, their employer scrapped the company retirement plan and converted it into a 401(k). The reader said it took years for the nature of the betrayal to become clear to him. Another noted that layoffs were already the norm by the time he entered the workforce, but that companies at least conducted them with a modicum of dignity. “Back in the 90s, an executive would be genuinely ashamed to lay off someone in a mass email,” he wrote. “Managers had the decency to look you in the eye when they delivered the bad news.” There isn’t a generational divide over workplace loyalty, these readers were telling me. Employees of all ages are fed up with the way their companies treat them.
Why did the piece strike such a chord with older workers? I put this question to one of them. “It resonated,” he replied, “because I still see company leadership telling us to give it our all and make sacrifices above and beyond to make the company prosperous — prosperity that we are very unlikely to share in.” Contrary to what I wrote, he has watched with dismay as his younger colleagues fall for the company’s line. “I see many people, particularly younger employees buying into it,” he said. “Millennials badly need to become as cynical, demanding, and difficult as the press makes them out to be.”
This is not, to put it mildly, the way I had framed it in my story. American workplaces, it appears, are full of Gen X and boomer Marxes. Millennials of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!
The comment reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a software engineer I’ll call Gabriel. Last year, he was devastated to be laid off from his very first job out of college. Only a few weeks earlier, executives had assured everyone in an all-hands meeting that, while times were tough, the company wasn’t at the point where it needed to lay people off. Gabriel thought he deserved at least a warning that the cuts might be coming. He thought he deserved to know why they chose him, and not others on his team. He thought he’d be rewarded, as a high performer, with job security.
In his new job, he puts in eight hours of labor a day, five days a week — and not a minute more.
These didn’t strike me as unreasonable expectations. But as we talked, Gabriel seemed almost ashamed for having held them. He blamed himself for ever expecting his employer to treat him fairly. “It was my fault for even feeling like I was owed anything,” he told me. Now, in his new job, the only thing he feels entitled to is his agreed-upon salary — and in return, he puts in eight hours of labor a day, five days a week, and not a minute more. “I’m not going to ever go above and beyond,” he says.
That’s how Gabriel, and many other workers, have decided to even the scales in the modern workplace. But as I wrote in my original story, I don’t think this is actually the world most of us want — a kind of hypertransactional relationship between employers and employees where no one owes anyone anything, where we all adopt what one of my readers called a “mercenary mindset.” Even Gabriel, who has adopted the very cynicism that one of my older readers urged, says he misses the camaraderie he felt with his old team, back when he gave his job his all.
“It felt like we were all winning,” he says. “I don’t want the world to be like this. But now I know how this game works. So I’m going to play it to win it.” He’s come to the same conclusion as older, more experienced workers. They wish loyalty was still rewarded by their companies. But because they can no longer expect that, they’ve decided to adapt.
Perhaps the biggest lesson for me, based on all the emails I’ve received, is to stop pontificating on differences between the generations. But I can’t help myself, so I’ll hazard one more sweeping generalization: Maybe the biggest difference between older and younger workers today isn’t how they feel about loyalty, as I originally posited. Maybe it’s what they’re doing about it.
The emails I got from boomer and Gen X and even millennial readers were tinged with a sense of resignation — a reluctant acceptance of the way the world is now. Gen Z, on the other hand, isn’t quite resigned to that reality yet. From the office to TikTok, they’re vocal about their displeasure with the state of work today. They believe that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that they have the power to force their employers to change.
Some might call that naivete. Others might call it entitlement. But the older workers I heard from call it something else. They call it about damn time.
Aki Ito is a chief correspondent at Business Insider.