Millennials: I’m out of touch with the modern workplace. Please help me get current.

It’s not right for me to go around saying the workplace is toxic if I don’t understand the nature of the toxicity, and I suspect I don’t.

Viz., I got called out for some comments I made on Reddit’s /r/financialindepence sub last week about my disdain for social media use at work. My position, which arose from a philosophy I’ve long held, was that if you have time to be surfing Facebook/Instagram/etc. at work, then you’re underutilized and it’s on me as your boss to find you more productive things to do.

But as I was trying to get this point across, I used a horrible illustration. It was more or less, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.” I expressed that quite literally. “Put your phone down. Here’s the Windex and the windows are thataway. Get cracking.”

The response from readers was straightforward.

A) Micromanaging to that level is unacceptable.

B) You sound like a terrible boss and I’d rather quit than work for you.

C) The kind of workplace you were in back in the day sounds like my worst nightmare.

D) You’ve been out of the workplace for too long to have valid opinions about how things are now, and

E) You therefore oughtta keep your mouth shut about things you don’t understand.

I totally had that coming.

So please let me know what you think of the following. My purpose isn’t to defend myself by debating you, but rather to get in touch with current reality are so I can offer my FIRE experiences in the proper context.


Thing #1: Work-life balance is so out of whack that you’re forced to manage your home life at work and your work life at home.

I *think* I get the principle here, because it wasn’t so different when I was still working.1 We had beepers and Blackberries and cell phones and laptops, and as a senior director my company paid for my internet connection. So yeah, we took work home.

And consequently we paid bills and made personal calls and handled our investments and such at work. I went so far as spending a lot of time on the various FIRE discussion boards. It follows, then, that I was being hypocritical by criticizing people who now do the same thing, even if it now takes different forms.

All that said, how far has the work-life balance gotten skewed towards work since then? My job was damned invasive back in the day but there was still a clear line between it and life…but has that line been moved or even erased? Are work and life now the same thing?


Thing #2: Being given more work is a punishment rather than a reward.

First, I agree that busywork and mandatory face-time suck and oughtta be abolished.

With that said, I think the most productive method of management is for the boss to communicate the overall objectives and leave it up to you and your peers to make them happen, while meanwhile she’s getting you the resources you need, staying out of your way, and looking forward.

Which is to say: as long as you’re being ethical and operating within the law and company policy, a good boss shouldn’t care about your methods and time management as long as you get results. Or at least shouldn’t care very much.

But say you’re a highly productive employee and your boss comes to you and says, “Hey, a legitimately important thing has come up and I could use your help. You want to take it on?”

How do you feel? Punished, or rewarded?

To my way of thinking you oughtta feel rewarded. I’ll be straight up: as a manger, the people I always promoted were the ones who’d say, “Sure, sign me up. I’ve got this.” It told me they were looking for more responsibility and if they had to make sacrifices to get it, that was OK. These days one of those sacrifices could be spending less time on social media in the office. And if they’re indeed wanting more opportunity, and handling it, it’s my job as a manager give it to them. It’s also my job to write them excellent service reviews and advocate for them to get more promotions, better raises, and bigger bonuses.

To that point about raises and bonuses: in the Reddit conversation I led with I was given to understand that in many if not most cases, promises of higher pay are bullshit. Either your financial incentives are based on big nebulous departmental/corporate goals and your personal performance is irrelevant, or else the company is lying to you in an attempt to squeeze out more work.

Which was too often true back in the day. Is it still? To what degree? And if so, I hope that when you become a manager you’ll do your best to fix it.


Simple follow-up. How can a company possibly function if work is looked at as a punishment? Seems like a perverse and oxymoronic incentive, such that the most productive employees end up doing less than the least productive ones.


Anyway, that’s my confusion. Is my thinking realistic? If not, why? Again, I’d really appreciate it if you’d weigh in to let me know whether I need to make adjustments. Probably I do, but I’m comfortable with that.

Footnotes

  1. My career lasted from 1993 to 2005.

Author: ER Dude

Sick of your job? After a thirteen-year career, Early Retirement Dude fled corporate America for good. You can do it too! Visit http://EarlyRetirementDude.com or email EarlyRetirementDude@gmail.com.

16 thoughts

  1. Hey ERD. I can only speak for my myself and my situation, but I would say the work life balance is dead in the water. My job requires a little more than most (i sell new homes), but I am essentially expected to always be on. Thankfully, my direct boss is great and acknowledged my many away messages (I have to have them for texts, missed calls, and emails), but if there’s an emergency, I am on again.
    As far as the work. It often feels like a punishment because you get nothing in return. I am the unofficial trainer for my team, but I so not get paid for that. It’s just a thing now. I’d like to think that I have somewhat more job security due to that, but that would be a lie. A lot of companies have evolved into a “What have you done for me recently” mindset. No one is safe and heaven forbid the leadership changes.
    This part of why I work towards FIRE, but i also know that my situation is a good amount better than other people’s.
    Hope that helped.

    1. >Hope that helped.

      That DEFINITELY helped.

      >As far as the work. It often feels like a punishment because you get nothing in return.

      HORRIBLE way to run a business. Employees oughtta share in the success of the business. As far as getting nothing in return, do you mean near-term compensation, future promotions, both, or…?

      1. Definitely no extra money for more work. Sales is sales. I make money when I sell.
        May have a leg up on promotions (unless they have a favorite they want to get it), but it would not be worth it. In my line of work a promotion would require a paycut of about $50K a year. I know that’s bizarre for most, but that’s the weirdness that is my field.

  2. Taking this point by point:
    Thing #1: Work-life balance is so out of whack that you’re forced to manage your home life at work and your work life at home.
    “My job was damned invasive back in the day but there was still a clear line between it and life…but has that line been moved or even erased? Are work and life now the same thing?” There is no line anymore. Work and life are definitely the same thing. In my line of work (marketing) people get fired if they are not reachable at any time (even when I’m supposed to be sleeping). If I’m going to be at an office for 12 hours and expected to still be there bright eyed and bushy tailed the next day at 9am (and respond to emails in bed instead of going through a healthy routine) you better believe I’m checking my social media at work to give me a quick reprieve (I see it similar to you making personal calls. There isn’t usually time in your ‘real’ life because work is your ‘real’ life and I need to step away for a second for my sanity. It doesn’t mean I have extra time).

    Thing #2: Being given more work is a punishment rather than a reward.
    I agree – I’ve always been a top performer and the person people come to because they know I get shit done, that has NEVER meant a promotion or a real raise. Just more work and stress for me. After almost a decade I’m over it. I straight up say no to these things and protect my time with everything I have. It doesn’t translate into a reward down the line – only a punishment now. Promises of promotions and higher pay are indeed bullshit. They’re a carrot dangled in front of you to make you work more and when you still don’t get the reward and get frustrated enough – you quit and still have never received anything you were promised.

    “How can a company possibly function if work is looked at as a punishment?”
    I honestly don’t know – but that’s why I’m striving to retire next year. Modern work culture has become a monster I don’t know how to fix.

    1. >I honestly don’t know – but that’s why I’m striving to retire next year.

      YES. Great point. After reading your comment it flashed on me that if the workplace is that much more toxic, then perhaps the motivation to reach FIRE is that much stronger.

      1. It’s definitely a reason I’m so aggressive with my goals. I’m on my 6th job now and found the best work/life balance so far, but I was still up emailing with my boss at 10pm last night and worked 8am-9pm the day before. It’s not sustainable.

  3. One thing that I’ve noticed from my coworkers is the complete absence of 15-minute breaks every 2 hours. Rather than stopping for a full 15-minutes, most people I know (myself included) take/took micro-breaks to check our personal email, catch the latest few tweets or text a friend/family member.

    This absolutely does not replace the mental health benefit of taking a break. In terms of net time worked for an employer I wouldn’t be surprised if it evens out. It goes to your work-life balance part too.

    Thing #2: Being given more work is a punishment rather than a reward.

    I’d agree with you on this one – being given more busy work is somewhat a punishment. If it isn’t expected that you increase your workload over time and it doesn’t come with some other compensation, then working harder for no additional $$ doesn’t sound like a good deal. I’d phrase this alternatively as:

    Being given more RESPONSIBILITY is a reward rather than a punishment.

    If you have the same workload + an additional responsibility (like helping others increase their productivity) then that’s a good sign. More responsibility signs more $$$ to me (over time).

    1. >Being given more RESPONSIBILITY is a reward rather than a punishment.

      Interesting distinction. Hadn’t thought of it. How does one earn more responsibility without doing more work?

      1. It may involve having more work. If you’re able to do all your work in the given time and there’s no way to “dial up the work”, then new responsibilities can help. If done right, it makes a job more fun! It is more work though, but the alternative is doing nothing or slowing down.

        When I’ve been in that position (or managed others with extra time) it’s usually started with a discussion question: “do you have the bandwidth to take on this new responsibility?”. If not, then we’d work to cut scope to where I (or who I was managing) could do it in working hours in order to set it up for success.

        Managers who outright dictate “you need to do X by Y” are the ones that I’ve always struggled to work with. I wouldn’t want to take on new work/responsibilities because they might give some huge project that would be impossible.

        Another thing is when you ask for a specific responsibility you’re interested in spending some of that surplus time on that helps the company and is interesting. Whenever employees I’ve worked with ask for that I LOVE it – especially when they’re already getting their work done. So many people I’ve worked with have done that.

        1. >“do you have the bandwidth to take on this new responsibility?”.

          I like this, man…you’re not offering new work, you’re offering–or at least as long as you’re being sincere, which knowing you, I 100% believe you are–something analogous to a small promotion. This is the kind of offer that if taken and made the most of, should lead to bigger & better things.

          > Whenever employees I’ve worked with ask for that I LOVE it – especially when they’re already getting their work done.

          And yeah, I couldn’t agree more.

  4. Rather than provide my own anecdote (even though it aligns with earlier comments) the statistics speak for themselves… the worsening state of work-life balance comes from the decimation of leverage the labor force has to make demand for benefits, including work-life balance.

    There a handful of indirect ways to measure decreased labor leverage:
    1. stagnant wages despite historic lows in unemployment
    2. increased profit margins despite flat-lined productivity (implies input cost suppression)
    3. declines in union participation
    4. millenials take less vacation days compared to older generations/cohorts
    5. record level of weekly hours worked by Americans vs. other developed nations
    6. the use of 401k plans vs. pensions by large employers
    7. the income equality gap (heavily skewed to owners of capital vs. laborers)

    There are other threats I can think of but haven’t seen the numbers on:
    8. the threat of automation (being replaced by a machine)
    9. threat of globalization (moving business overseas for cheaper labor)
    10. soaring health care costs (increases the necessity of job security)
    11. soaring costs of higher education (and therefore, student loan debt)

    I think the final straw that broke the camels back is that fact that many millenials were entering the workforce during the Great Recession, and our perception of job security is incredibly skewed towards insecure.

    I’ll be the first to admit our generation far from perfect, but when it comes to work-life preferences, we’re a product of our environment. No other generation has been so accessible to their employer due to advances in communications technology, and I don’t think any recent generation has been as thoroughly exploited for the sake of profitability. What we are seeing is a terribly meek form of push back from employee to employer… its just a shame we haven’t ask for something more valuable than a few minutes on social media…

    1. And to answer your question: “How can a company possibly function if work is looked at as a punishment?”

      A punishment is a penalty, and a penalty sets you back. Additional work is viewed as a punishment if it is perceived it to set one back… and it sounds like most people see it that way. Generally, with a large enough sample size, the average guess is a very accurate one. My gut tells me these people are smart by avoiding extra work, because they know it won’t pay off.

      Fortunately for me, I trust my boss because we have clear expectations of one another and our goals are aligned. This makes its easy for me to see what is an actual opportunity vs. smoke and mirrors. My boss is smart and ethical, though, which isn’t always the case, so I don’t get too much smoke and mirrors.

      Like you said, its the manager’s job to get the most out of their people, and that requires incentivizing them appropriately. That could be with monetary benefits, other benefits (including work-life balance perks), and any other recognition that they value. It could also just be the feeling that they are contributing to some important goal larger than themselves – which is why nebulous department goals are shitty where clear/specific ones are motivating.

      If you’ve done the above and people just still seem too lazy, then you have to fire and hire better.

      1. >My gut tells me these people are smart by avoiding extra work, because they know it won’t pay off.

        Yup. That’s the tragedy at the heart of it, I think. I also like what you say here:

        >Generally, with a large enough sample size, the average guess is a very accurate one.

        Spot-on.

    2. Luke, I’m supremely grateful for your answers. I feel much more up-to-speed now, and I gotta say that maybe I wasn’t as out-of-touch as I thought I was was. The roots of these problems were evident when I was your age even if they hadn’t grown into this big poisonous bush you folks are tangled up in.

      >the worsening state of work-life balance comes from the decimation of leverage the labor force has to make demand for benefits, including work-life balance.

      And this was absolutely fucking deliberate. Every time a union gets busted it breaks my heart a little. My grandfather’s generation–WWII’s “Greatest Generation” if you buy into that nomenclature–shed tears and blood for benefits we now take for granted and that have been and continue to be chipped away at. Have you, or any of my other readers, ever heard of the Wobblies and such?

  5. Sorry ER Dude I am a Generation X as a “Gen Xer” I am totally out of touch with Millennials and do not have a hope to understand them. My kids remind me all the time “Dad you just don’t understand!”

    1. You know…I’ve always been proud of being GenX, especially the music. We slaughtered hair metal and we dealt classic rock a big punch in the snoot. Say what you like about grunge, but it was OUR SOUND–a new form.

      Anyway, my daughter’s GenZ and occasionally we get crossed up in the cultural gap you describe. For instance, she’s got a couple of LGBTQ friends. I told her once how proud I am of her for that, and she gave me the weirdest look and said something along the lines of, “Why? They’re just people–nothing special.” And then I had to explain to her that–and I think this is straight-up true–that many GenX’ers were and perhaps are still a lot more homophobic than GenZ. It’s something I’ve had to deliberately shuck off, whereas she hasn’t even had to think about it.

      Ah, well. That’s painting with a big brush, of course, and I hope people don’t take umbrage at it. Just trying to lay out how things are as I remember them.

      But if you buy into that theory, then it again makes me proud to be a GenX’er. Maybe we’re leaving the world a little better than we found it.

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