“Maybe it’s something to do with your generation,” she says. “You all say you work nonstop, but I wonder if you really do.”
I was a little bit taken aback when my 30-something-year-old friend made this remark about those of us over 50. Was she calling into question the Baby Boomer Work Ethic? So what about that work ethic? Is it fact or fiction?
Incidentally, Boomers are those born between 1946 and 1964 — currently ranging from 52 to 70 years of age.
Now about that remark… Before responding, I quickly realized how often I have mentioned my own 60-, 70-, and 80-hour weeks over the years. I’m certain I’ve referenced them here, and no doubt, in conversation with other Boomers, Gen X-ers, as well as my young adult Millennial sons.
This last, describing long hours to my kids, is in order to stress what is often standard in corporate life, what is not unusual to become a successful entrepreneur, and to reflect the values that I raised them with — the importance of working hard and not expecting life to hand you success.
Long Hours as a Way of Life?
Then again, long work hours are very much the reality in certain professions (medicine, for example, at least in the early years). And, they’re reality for those who work multiple jobs in an uncertain economy, not to mention freelancers and independents of various types, also known as portfolio workers, for whom a fluctuating workload may be the norm. With these fluctuations there may be periods of working around the clock, offset by weeks and months of managing — or enjoying — a temporary lull.
Moreover, when you are a billable and accountable to clients, you track your time. Thus, you document hours worked and therefore have documents to support your claims regarding those 60, 70, and at occasionally 80-hour weeks.
When assignments are light, you may be working 15 hours a week or 20. Sounds good, doesn’t it? And it is, if it’s paying your bills! Then again, whether it’s paying your bills or not, you may be filling the rest of your time with skills acquisition — learning something new — or honing the skills you have. And if self-employed and only working 15 hours a week, you may also be prospecting or working your pipeline. When you put these factors together, while you may not be getting paid for 40 or more hours per week, you are nonetheless putting in that amount of time or more in pursuit of earning your keep.
The “Regular” Job With Predictable Hours
As for the old school “regular” job of the 9-to-5 variety, does that still exist for some of you?
Perhaps you are indeed making a living with more predictable hours. And it was in this light that my 30-something friend pointed out that her parents were known to comment on how much time they seem to work, and likewise others of the boomer generation. I suspect the commentary she was hearing came in the form of indirect and possibly tainted comparisons (as in “Why aren’t you working as much as we are?”) or equally indirect complaints (as in “Why am I 58 and still working this many hours while you’re only putting in 30 per week and content with that?”).
These are assumptions on my part based on the 50-somethings and 60-somethings I know whose children who are Millennials.
Playing Devil’s Advocate, wouldn’t our Millennial and Gen-X children, having been raised by parents who seem weighed down by work and possibly not at home enough, choose to target something different?
Whether or not the assertions some of us maintain about our work lives stand up to scrutiny isn’t so much the point. But this is: Enjoying our productivity is one thing, but where is the virtue in working non-stop?
Boomer Hours: Myth or Reality?
As I considered my friend’s perspective — she elaborated on her observations that the Boomers she knows consistently present as working excessively, generally stated in the form of a complaint — I did indeed wonder if this is myth or reality.
A recent article in Forbes from ADPVoice, specifically targeting Chief Human Resource Officers, cites research from Pew, along with other sources like Harvard Business Review and The Atlantic, reminding us that varying generational approaches to matters of work are all about values.
For Baby Boomers, those values include:
… “high expectations” and “pushing hard” to reach goals and make changes in the world.
In comparison, consider the Gen X-ers (born between 1965 and 1980) and Millennials (born between 1980 and 1997):
… Both Gen-Xers and Millennials prioritize a balance between life and work, in stark contrast to Baby boomers… Baby boomers are famous for their work ethic and commitment to getting the job done… it’s safe to say that the work-life balance of boomers traditionally includes a little more “work” than “life.”
But does this really equate to 70-hour work weeks and more? Just how true is it that we labor as diligently, as assiduously, and as arduously as we think? Is it our perception of the hamster wheel combined with aging that makes our remarks sound tinged with sour grapes?
The Boundaries Around “Work” Are Unclear
Beyond the accounting of hours that I mentioned, which certainly documents billable time, when I think back to my years of 60-hour work weeks in the traditional workplace, I ask myself how much time was spent in on-the-job camaraderie. Isn’t that what solidifies teams? Doesn’t it create amiable solidarity in the face of accelerated deadlines?
Do we tend to add our commuting times to perceptions of an overloaded schedule? If we don’t enjoy what we’re doing, if we feel we aren’t compensated sufficiently for our contributions, does that skew our perceptions or are we edging into complaining no matter what? And when our Millennial and Gen-X counterparts put in similar hours, do they simply complain less about it?
With technology in the palm of our hands, say hello to our 24/7 access to friends, colleagues, customers, and prospects; to our blending of money-making tasks and socializing on our smartphones and notebooks; to our self-promotional social media ethos. Aren’t the boundaries of work and play more unclear than ever?
For some of us, there’s no question that our work lives involve very long hours. For others, professional life is a matter of feast or famine. And when financial necessity requires us to hold multiple jobs or work simultaneous projects, for damn sure, we will be tired.
We may be resentful. We may bitch.
Sure, memory can blur details. And given the values the Boomer generation is known for, it’s easy to see why we might consider that we’ve worked harder than our children’s generation. But why do we deify ourselves for spending decades with nose to the grindstone? Do we envy our 20-somethings and 30-somethings with their insistence on a more balanced work and play approach? Can we find a middle ground? And if we are staking out some sort of moral superiority for working ourselves into an early grave, whether fact or fancy, might we consider shutting up about it?
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