In January, I published an article about how loyalty is disappearing in American workplaces. The response to this article was huge and he received more emails and LinkedIn messages about this article than any other article he has written in my 14 years as a journalist. And what shocked me the most were the readers who wanted to tell me I was doing something wrong.
In the story, I wrote that people seem to be divided into two groups regarding things. Decreased loyalty at work. “On one side,” I argued, “are bosses and tenured employees, baby boomers and Gen Xers.” Children these days are they complain. Do they have no loyalty? On the other side, there are younger workers, millennials, and Gen Z who are also feeling the sadness. If the company isn't loyal to me, why should I be loyal to the company?”
Surprisingly, many older readers had a problem with being grouped together with loyalists. “Loyal GenX – Are you kidding?” read the subject line of an email from Gen X. Another person wrote more gently: “I think you've got most of the facts right, but Gen Xers are getting everything wrong.” They added: “My generation is the most dissatisfied in the workplace and we realized 20 years ago that corporate loyalty no longer exists.”
We're used to hearing people in their 20s complain about the state of corporate America today. But I never expected to hear so much disappointment and disillusionment from veterans in my workplace. I wrote this story to young people to defend their determination to rebel against the idea that they owe gratitude to their employers. Rather, it appears that I have unintentionally taken advantage of the quiet dissatisfaction of an experienced employee. After all, it's baby boomers and her Gen Xers who actually remember a time when companies treated them better. For them, the broken “psychological contract” I described in my story is not a historical artifact. It's their lived experience. One reader wrote, “It summed up everything I've experienced over the past 38 years of my career.”
Readers told me they have seen employers violate the social contract in a variety of ways. The baby boomer, a retired bank executive, admits he was lucky to have spent more than 30 years with one company that treated him well. But starting in the 1980s, we saw other companies bow to the whims of Wall Street and cut employee benefits to squeeze every last penny out for shareholders. Today, he wrote, “Corporate greed is paramount at the expense of everything else.”
A slightly younger reader who graduated from university in 1993 was receiving a pension from his first job. Then, to the exasperation of their seniors, their employer eliminated the company's retirement plan and replaced it with a 401(k). Readers said it took years for the nature of the betrayal to become clear. Another pointed out that by the time he entered the workforce, layoffs were already the norm, but companies at least did so with some dignity. “Back in the '90s, executives would have been deeply ashamed to fire someone in a mass email,” he wrote. “Managers had the decency to look you in the eye when they delivered bad news.” There's no generational divide when it comes to loyalty at work, readers tell me. He was talking.employees of all Many people are fed up with how their companies treat them.
Why did this work resonate with older workers? I asked one of them this question. “It resonated with me,” he replied. “Because I still see company leaders telling me to do everything in my power and sacrifice more than I can to make the company prosper. The chances of us sharing in that prosperity are very slim.” Contrary to what I wrote, he has watched with dismay as younger colleagues fall into company policy. “I see a lot of people buying into it, especially younger employees,” he says. “Millennials need to be as cynical, demanding and difficult as the media makes them out to be.”
This is not how I framed it in the story, to say the least. The American workplace seems to be full of Marxian Generation Xers and Baby Boomers. Millennials around the world unite! You have nothing to lose except the chain.
This comment reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a software engineer I'll call Gabriel. Last year, he was fired from his first job out of college and was devastated. Just a few weeks ago, executives made it clear in an all-hands meeting that, despite the challenges, the company was not at a point where layoffs were necessary. Gabriel thought he deserved at least a warning that layoffs might occur. He thought it was worth knowing why they chose him over the rest of the team. He believed that good grades would provide him with job security.
At my new job, I'm putting in 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and not even a minute more.
These did not seem to me to be unreasonable expectations. But as we talked, Gabriel seemed almost embarrassed to have held them. He blamed himself for continuing to expect his employer to treat him fairly. “It’s my fault for even feeling like I owed you,” he told me. Now, all he feels he is entitled to in his new job is the agreed upon salary. In return, he works 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and not a minute of work. “I'm not going to do anything more than this,” he says.
In this way, Gabriel and many other workers decided to equalize the scale of the modern workplace. But as I wrote in the original article, I don't think this is actually the world that most of us want. That is, a world in which no one owes anyone anything, a kind of super-transactional relationship between employers and employees, where everyone adopts what one of my readers called it. “Mercenary thinking.” Even Gabriel, embracing the very irony recommended by one of my older readers, says he misses the camaraderie with his old team he felt when he was fully committed to his job.
“It felt like we all won,” he says. “I don't want the world to be like this. But I know how this game works, so I'm going to play to win.” I've come to a conclusion. They want their loyalty to still be rewarded by the company. But they could no longer count on that, so they decided to adapt.
Based on all the emails I've received, perhaps the biggest lesson for me is to stop magnifying generational differences. But I can't help myself, so I'll try again to make a broad generalization. Perhaps the biggest difference between older and younger workers today is not, as I initially argued, how they feel about loyalty.Maybe that's who they are. Are doing about it.
The emails I receive from baby boomers, Gen Meanwhile, Gen Z has yet to fully accept that reality. From the office to his TikTok, they're vocal about their dissatisfaction with the state of work today. They believe it doesn't have to be this way and that they have the power to force employers to change.
Some might call it naive. Others might call it a right. But the older workers I heard called it something else. They say it's time.
Aki Ito I'm Business Insider's chief correspondent.