Generational Gyrations

Have You Paid Your Dues?

Ask thirtysomething Gen Xers about their youth, and they'll recall the corporate layoffs of the 1980s and the difficulty of finding their first "real jobs" in the economic downturn of the early 1990s. Their experiences have made them pragmatic and cautious. Gen Yers, on the other hand, have yet to seek work in a bad economy. As long as they've been paying attention, the economy has been golden, job offers plentiful and starting salaries high. According to Jobtrak, a job Web site, the average starting salary in fall 2000 was $37,268. Another Jobtrak study in March 2000 revealed that 52 percent of graduating college students expected to be millionaires by the time they were 40 years old.

Gen X entre-preneurs and managers aren't sure they want to accommodate these expectations Gen Yers are bringing to the workplace, although they know it's what the current market dictates. As much as they hate to admit it, Xers have taken some workplace cues from their Boomer elders, applying a "dues-paying" mentality in their own businesses. Xers see a company ladder that should be observed and respected, even in a prosperous economy.

"It was never so easy for us. We always had to work hard. Gosh, I sound like my grandparents," says Joshua Shaub, 30, president and CEO of New York City-based Mighty Seven Networks, an e-marketing company with 35 employees. Shaub says that when he graduated from Cornell University in New York City in 1992, he took any job he could get. He spent a year as a desktop publisher, hoping eventually to work his way into a "good" wage. "I fought upstream and developed my skills. In the early 1990s, the system was harder, and $30,000 was a good salary," he says. "Now I have 24-year-olds asking for $75K. It's ridiculous."

Shaub says he had a 22-year-old job applicant come in who expected his pay to be raised from $45,000 to $80,000 in one year if he came on board. Shaub asked the applicant why he deserved such a dramatic increase. "He told me that now he had three months of work expe-rience and knew the industry," Shaub says. (The applicant didn't receive the job.) Then there was the 22--year-old sales employee who wanted a huge office and "a lot of respect" without having enough experience to navigate the small deals yet. Shaub says his thirty-something managers have complained that Generation Y workers lack professionalism. "[In Gen Y], there's a mis-perception of competency and a lack of understanding of how business is done," Shaub says.

When his Gen Y employees ask for raises, Shaub reminds them that the company is making an investment in them. He then tells them how he started the company and explains the financial risks he is taking as an entrepreneur. Finally, he lays out his performance expectations and associates raises with structured goals. "My attitude is, if they are interested in learning the business and getting better at their jobs, I'm willing to invest in them," he says.

But while dues -paying is a big thing with thirtysomething Xers, it's a hard concept for today's younger workers to grasp-and one that, by and large, they don't feel they need to. "Paying your dues is null and void in today's economy. It means that I was miserable, so you should be miserable, too," says Claire Raines, co-author of Generations At Work (AMACOM), which reveals how different generations can work together. "Age and rank used to correlate. Now the world has changed."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the April 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Generational Gyrations.

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