Globe & Mail, June 26, 2009
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
I recently asked a 25-year-old friend what kind of effect she thought the recession has had on her career expectations. The answer: sobering.
For many years, her generation had been promised a lifetime of opportunity. Skills shortages, mass boomer retirements and talent wars meant there would be a feast of choices, and being passionate about her work would be a basic right.
Now she figures she's lucky just to have a job, and she's worried about the future. Expectations of being passionate about her job aren't even on her mind any more. She "just wants to find a place to hide, which also pays the bills."
My friend's comments are fairly typical - many young people I talk to have significantly, and resentfully, lowered their expectations. They didn't imagine themselves in this situation in their wildest dreams.
Nor did many others. Generation Y will be most affected by the cutbacks, downsizings and marked change in organizational cultures over the past few months, but the recession will take its toll on every generation's attitudes and expectations. The question is how long-lasting the reverberations will be in reshaping the way people think, feel and act toward work and their careers. Here is a look at some of the fallout and how it may play out:
Gen Yers aren't the only ones feeling like their work worlds have caved in. Many fifty-somethings, also raised on prosperity and ready to retire, had hopes of crafting a future combining travel, giving care, hobbies and income generation - all on their own terms. Those desires are now dashed as eroded finances mean they can no longer afford to leave.
Some will still be laid off or forced into retirement. But many who aren't tossed out will be bitter as they come to terms with where they thought they would be at this life stage. Their bitterness will be communicated to colleagues, creating less-than-happy work cultures that will quickly tire of "freedom 75" jokes.
Their continued need to work will also reverberate on families who were counting on soon-to-retire parents to become caregivers to their grandchildren. This, in turn, will leave some young parents disappointed as they revisit the work for money/stay-at-home decisions, and whether they can afford child care or are comfortable with non-familial care givers.
Frustrated dreams can be found in other pockets. Even many stars' hopes and expectations are being dashed. At a recent conference, a career counsellor who works for a university MBA program told me that about half of the students, most in their late 20s and early 30s, with impressive track records, can't find summer employment.
In previous years, they would have been aggressively courted. They are feeling angry, she said. "They aren't accustomed to being rejected. They keep saying, 'it's unfair' as if this was something being directed at them personally."
The anxiety and grumpiness the recession has wrought has revealed an ugly underbelly.
When I recently canvassed several people, many expressed what felt like schadenfreude. This comment was typical: "People are getting what they deserve. I've always been careful, both in my career choices and my lifestyle choices. Other people spent way too much money and now they're paying the price."
From the corporate point of view, similarly hostile views were expressed. And the performance bar has gone into the stratosphere. Several managers and executives said this was a way to get rid of mediocre employees, and anyone who wasn't prepared to give 150 per cent.
As one manager put it: "I evaluate the willingness of my staff to take on extra duties as well as do stellar work in their existing job. Those employees that cannot or will not do this become expendable."
This hard-line attitude will leave a bad taste in many workers' mouths. Some will develop a lasting cynicism and suspicion of organizational motives. They will not expect anything good of their employers. Others will be traumatized. Whatever cockiness employers have accused Gen Yers of having, for instance, will be knocked out of some.
Others will develop a healthier self-reliance. They will understand that organizations will not necessarily look after them and they will have to look after themselves. The very talented will be vigilant in looking for new opportunities.
Some organizations that have found they can bully workers will not return to a kinder, gentler culture, where people's feelings count for something and providing opportunity for work/life balance is a priority. Some organizations will repeat experiences of the recessionary nineties, never really staffing up again and sticking to a do-more-with-less mantra.
This is not organization bashing. Many of my clients and friends have senior HR jobs. They have done extraordinary staffing gymnastics to keep terminations at a minimum. They have communicated openly with workers.
Nonetheless, at a recent meeting of senior HR leaders , many said there would be permanent changes to their cultures. They were worried about future employee relations. They understood that some of the cost-saving moves they have made, such as cutting jobs, training and development, salaries and benefits, may have a lasting effect on morale. They were also particularly worried about keeping their star performers.
The expectation today is that workers can hit the ground running, requiring little or no support or training. It doesn't bode well in terms of the future leadership pool.
With so many people now competing for jobs, many recruiters have told me they are being given almost impossible-to-find wish lists of skills and experience for ideal candidates.
A year ago, some related experience or accomplishments would have been enough. Not now. This is having a serious impact on job seekers.
If organizations continue such an approach to staffing, the effects will be felt most acutely by career changers who made significant investment in going back to school to enable them to move onto a new career path; in debt and frustrated, they will, often resentfully, go back to jobs where they are a proven entity - if those jobs still exist.
Each generation thinks it wins the prize for "most screwed generation." And each generation blames the preceding one for blocked career moves.
If such resentments existed before the recession, they have only been intensified by all the downsizings and freezes in staffing and promotions.
Twenty-somethings can't get an entry-level job because these stepping-stone positions are held by thirty-somethings. Thirty-somethings who thought they would be in the management ranks are being blocked by forty-somethings. Forty-somethings who thought they would be in the executive ranks are being blocked by fifty-somethings who were supposed to retire.
This will severely delay development of younger and midlife workers. They will lack necessary skills, training and experiences when the economy recovers. The scarcity of opportunities, lack of development, disappointments, frustrations and anxiety may have a lasting impact on people's psyches, in particular, younger workers.
Opportunities define a generation. The way we look at our careers, and our expectations about the work world, are shaped by the economic forces at play when we grow up, and the opportunities available in early career years.
Just as those people who came into young adulthood during the Depression were permanently marked by scarcity and frugality borne of their early career experiences, today's young workers may be also permanently marked.
Or maybe they'll become more like Gen Xers who entered the workplace in the recessionary nineties, during a time of massive cutbacks. The result: they became plucky, self-reliant career managers.