AT THE HEIGHT of Seattle's economic boom, the bosses at Parker LePla, a small PR and branding firm, were just wrapping up a performance review with one...
AT THE HEIGHT of Seattle’s economic boom, the bosses at Parker LePla, a small PR and branding firm, were just wrapping up a performance review with one of their newer employees, a woman in her 20s.
She could improve on a few things, they told her, but overall she was doing a good job. She’d be getting a 20 percent raise.
Instead of saying thank-you, the young woman did something unexpected. She burst into tears. Then she got angry. She had expected a raise and a promotion.
Owners Lynn Parker and Joe LePla sat in stunned silence. They had, after all, created a sort of workplace utopia: profit sharing, team-based decision-making, flexible hours, even free wine after work — all in an open office with fashionable exposed brick, a sweeping view of Lake Union and a burbling koi pond in the center of the room.
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Still, employees wanted more. There was the job candidate who asked for a cell phone, laptop and free gym membership; the intern who e-mailed a friend (and by accident the entire company) to complain how bored she was playing games on the Internet. There were the people who abused the flextime policy by working at home whenever they felt like it, and the party animals who began uncorking the wine in the middle of the afternoon.
Then there was the sullen reaction to a matching IRA program and a profit-sharing plan, which could be as much as 20 percent of an employee’s salary. They would have preferred cash.
What was going on here?
Certainly the overheated economy of the ’90s had created ridiculous expectations. In a competitive market where demand for good workers far outpaced the supply, employees were behaving like spoiled athletes.
But the greed of the times was amplifying something more enduring: The generation gap was back, bringing its familiar clash in styles, values and expectations. Only this time the battles were taking place at work.
The knowledge economy has knocked out the traditional hierarchies that used to separate senior workers from younger underlings. Many white-collar professions, recognizing that 10 brains are better than one, have replaced the old command-and-control models with employee teams that decide everything from how to handle a major client to where to hold the office Christmas party.
Blue-collar manufacturers have done the same with total quality management, a system that pushes responsibility throughout the rank-and-file, giving workers of all grades a voice in how things are done.
Out of this generational stew bubbled a common source of misunderstanding: While workers of different ages want basically the same things — meaningful contribution, opportunities to grow and a fair reward for a job well done — they can have vastly different ideas about what those mean.
“Generational differences are values,” says Claire Raines, co-author of “Generations at Work” and part of a growing profession designed to address such things: the generational consultant. “If we say we value respect, well, to the older generation that probably means we call you sir or ma’am and put you on a pedestal. To Generation X, it’s more, ‘We respect your competence.’ ”
“Fear and guilt worked really well with the World War II generation and the baby boomers,” she says. “To a baby boomer, getting fired is just mortifying. To most Gen Xers, it’s like ‘I’m fired. OK, free time until I get to find something else.’ “
Such popular theories have their share of criticism, namely that analyzing the traits of any large population leads to unfair and unrealistic stereotyping. But Raines and others who study the subject say each generation is shaped by the sociological, political and economic conditions of the times. Examining them can lead, if not to harmony, then at least to understanding.
PARKER, A DRIVEN 48-year-old with a rebellious streak of magenta in her hair, and LePla, 49, assumed when they created their company in 1994 that employees would value the same things they did: autonomy, creative freedom, a place where everyone got a say in how things were done.
“We were very idealistic,” says Parker, sitting in a conference room, one of the few places in the office with walls.
Parker’s ideas were shaped by the family she grew up in and the politics of the time. Her parents, both educators, believed in the positive-reinforcement theory promoted by popular psychologist B.F. Skinner.
She was also raised to believe that business was, she confesses, “a little bit evil.”
“The people we knew in business were about maximizing profits instead of making the world a better place.”
She graduated from an alternative high school in Palo Alto, Calif., and enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The counter-culture college embraced the social changes of the ’60s and thumbed its nose at convention by making the banana slug its team mascot.
Parker ran a recycling center called People Who Care, had a brief career in journalism, then settled on marketing and advertising, working for traditional firms in the Silicon Valley and later in Kirkland, where she met LePla, who specialized in public relations.
The two set out to create the kind of firm they’d want to work for: an emphasis on client service rather than billable hours, and a fun, egalitarian office where the founders and the employees were more like partners than bosses and subordinates.
“The point,” says LePla, a quiet, measured man, “was to make people think like owners.”
In this, the partners were part of the workplace revolution begun in the 1990s and led by their own generation, some 78 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964. While popular culture focused on the student rebellions and the hippie movement of the late 1960s, those cliches masked the deeper influences the vast generation has had on the workplace.
It can be credited (or blamed) for corporate America’s obsessive cult of achievement with its 14-hour work days and ongoing education. It was shaped by the civil- and equal-rights movements. More than any generation before or after, its members value teamwork and harmony, according to a survey on generational differences done by the Society of Human Resource Management.
“Baby boomers flattened out the hierarchies,” Raines says. “They had consensus management. They looked at people humanely.”
Parker and LePla hired smart, young creative types in their 20s and 30s, the so-called Generation X, that misunderstood and often maligned population of 50 million born between 1965 and 1980.
Seattle had become a mecca for Gen Xers lured by the music culture and growing technology industry. By 2000, they outnumbered the city’s baby boomers by 20,000.
Unlike the boomers, this generation was shaped by a culture of fractured families and fraying communities. They were the latchkey children, the post-Watergate heirs of corporate downsizing, where institutions were not to be trusted — and neither were employers.
They entered the work world as self-protective free agents whose financial security rested solely on their shoulders. They would lease their talent to their boss, but their loyalty was to themselves.
“Gen Xers desperately try to take care of themselves,” says Bruce Tulgan, a 37-year-old generational consultant and author of “Managing Generation X.” “They think like entrepreneurs in a visceral way; they’re always in jeopardy.”
Although their self-reliance swung to the extreme during the greedy years, in saner times it’s reflected in people like Briana Marrah, an account manager at Parker LePla. Marrah, 27, has worked for the firm since 2000, shortly after graduating from the University of Puget Sound with a degree in history.
Unlike young people in previous generations, she never expected to join a company and stay with it for life. Nor did she expect her employer to be in charge of her professional advancement. Instead, she’s designed her own career, and she’s weighed her options strategically.
“You’ll die when you hear this,” she says, “but when I graduated from high school I applied to 12 universities. I had a spreadsheet that compared the costs and benefits of each one.”
She worked through her schooling to pay the bills and took unpaid internships to gain contacts. One of them steered her toward public relations and ultimately Parker LePla, where she became a senior account manager.
Marrah has thrived at work, and her success is one reason that Lynn Parker wonders if the problems of the past had more to do with the greedy economy than generational differences.
But she and LePla modified their utopian management principles nonetheless. Along with B.F. Skinner’s carrot, they introduced their version of a stick: They put an end to the afternoon drinking. They demanded more sensible work schedules so the employees would be available for team meetings and in case the client called. No more long stretches of “working at home,” a term Parker emphasizes with air quotes. And, they began monitoring workloads.
The guidelines were laid down, and when they weren’t followed, says LePla, “we had to have hard conversations.”
VIC ODERMAT NEVER embraced the management fads of the 1980s and ’90s. The 74-year-old self-made businessman ran his company, Brown Bear Car Wash, the way most companies were run when he was growing up. There was a commander, the lieutenants and then the troops who carried out the duties. Employees were expected to be obedient, disciplined and hard-working. It was a clear, concise, authoritarian ethic that would be tested during the boom years.
Odermat, who came of age in the postwar 1950s, was raised in Alaska, the son of a small businessman. A former military man, he always insisted his employees call him Mr. Odermat; he referred to his lieutenants as misters, too.
“In the Marine Corps you did not salute the individual, you saluted the rank, and the rank should be respected.”
Odermat’s principles mean that good employees are likely to have a job for life. General manager Tom North, now 51, began working for Odermat at age 15, as have others.
At Brown Bear, the bosses were there to make sure the subordinates did their work, but if a car wash got busy, the top guys were expected to grab a towel and pitch in. And no one worked harder than Odermat himself. In the early years he’d spend 14 hours a day, 365 days a year, on the business.
“I’ve never asked an employee to do anything that I wouldn’t do,” Odermat says.
The loyalty he expected from his employees, he gave in return.
And one of his acts of loyalty, in his mind, was to hand over control of Brown Bear to Tosco in 1995. It was a big organization with deep pockets and big plans to expand the car washes and convenience stores.
“They committed to me that they would provide my employees with better opportunities than I could ever offer,” Odermat says emphatically.
But Tosco, which later became ConocoPhillips, never expanded. Worse, the disciplined, proud culture that Odermat had worked so hard to instill disintegrated. Gone was Brown Bear’s famous dress code: white shirts and black ties. Employees, most of them in their early 20s, no longer ran from task to task; they strolled. Wait times lengthened, cars backed up. In the summer, the guys would often take their shirts off so they could get a tan while wiping down cars. When business was slow, they took smoke breaks or stood around the gas pumps and talked.
Frustrated, Odermat reclaimed Brown Bear in late 2003 and immediately began restoring order. He reinstated the shirt and tie, and required employees to stand at parade rest, hands clasped behind their backs, when waiting for customers. There would be no more smoking in front of customers; no more leaning on counters in the convenience stores.
Predictably, some of Brown Bear’s younger employees rebelled. They found the new rules unnecessary and silly.
Taylor Jordon, a 23-year-old attendant who worked at the Totem Lake store, loathed the idea of a uniform and a tie “flapping in your face.” And the district manager was now checking up on them regularly.
“He’s like, ‘This is gonna change. You can’t do that. You gotta clean.’ I’m like, dude, we just cleaned this.”
Jordan left, and so did others. Odermat replaced them with people who thought more like himself.
Area manager Steve Palmer, 35, had worked for Brown Bear since he was 16. He left in 2000 because he didn’t like the direction Tosco was taking, and returned only after Odermat regained control. To him, working for a large company with relatively casual supervision wasn’t liberating, it was enervating. The employee pride he’d known had turned to apathy.
“There were no consequences for not performing at a low level and no reward for performing at a high level.”
Some employees still grumble about the rules, but Odermat has avoided another full-scale uprising. This is because most generational conflicts are the result of what author Raines calls “inarticulate assumptions and unconscious criteria.” Odermat has made his expectations clear, and employees can either fall in line or go elsewhere.
To Bellevue car-wash attendant Arden Massie, who found religion and set his life straight at age 30, Odermat’s insistence on excellence is something to aspire to.
“I wasn’t willing to work for the old company. I did my job, but my work ethic was not there,” he says. “You can’t take advice from somebody who hasn’t been where you want to go. Now I show up early, I stay late, I treat my manager with respect.”
NURSE KRIS OKERLUND has spent 32 years racing the halls of Harborview Medical Center’s emergency ward. She has worked double shifts, postponed vacations in high-trauma months and has patiently endured hundreds of needle jabs from students learning to draw blood.
“All for one and one for all,” she says cheerfully. “We sacrifice ourselves.”
At 52, she’s accustomed to sacrifice. It’s what you do when you work for a hospital. It’s what her parents taught her when she was growing up on a chicken ranch in Skagit Valley. Work first, play later.
Okerlund was a child of the ’60s, but her values about work are rooted much further back, to her parents’ time, before work/life balance was a goal, before employers began offering sabbaticals, flextime and job sharing, before the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ensured time off for family matters.
When Okerlund joined the hospital in 1973, a nurse’s life was designed around her job — the job wasn’t designed around her life. In many ways she’s typical of her generation, which fought for greater employee privileges but also resents them at times.
“We taught our girls not to get stepped on, to take care of themselves. And now they are,” she says. “They choose where they work and when they work. I’m glad they have the opportunity, but it feels like they’re abusing it. You’re pregnant again? Good golly you just got back from three months!”
It’s true that younger workers have few qualms about putting personal interests above their jobs. A 2004 study by the Families and Work Institute, for example, found that just 13 percent of younger employees placed work above family, compared to 22 percent of baby boomers.
At Harborview, younger workers don’t understand why they can’t take advantage of the benefits they’ve been granted. For nurse Gina Fouts, 30, that means taking a sick day when a wicked cold demands it. When she uses those days, though, she can’t help but feel subtle disapproval from some of her older colleagues.
“The assumption is you can only get so many colds a year. I can understand their point of view, but at the same time I feel that these are my benefits. Why shouldn’t I be able to use them?”
The chafing is likely to continue with the next group of people now entering the workforce. Demographers haven’t settled on a name for this generation, born after 1980 — called Generation Y, the Millennials, Nexters — but, unlike their predecessors, they’ve grown up in an age where work and free time hold equal importance.
This is the coddled, adored, overscheduled generation raised during the self-esteem movement of the 1980s. They come to work expecting flextime, job sharing and long maternity leaves, not as perks but as standard job benefits.
And while older workers demand respect for their title or rank, self-confident Gen Yers expect it as a matter of course, say Raines and other generational experts. They understand the idea of paying their dues, but they also feel entitled to a promotion when they do good work, regardless of their age.
Right now, this generation’s eldest are just beginning their careers, creating a workplace four generations deep.
It’s possible that Gen Y’s influence will bridge some of the generational gulfs that divided many workplaces over the past 10 years. Unlike the self-protective Gen X, this group embraces many of the principles held by older workers: discipline, teamwork, authority.
“Gen X was the great unsupervised generation, (so) they had very low expectations for established institutions,” says author Tulgan. “Gen Yers were the great oversupervised generation. They have very high expectations for established institutions.
“Gen Xers think like entrepreneurs, but Gen Yers think like customers. They’re much more aware of the quid pro quo, of the transaction. They consume status and reward in the workplace. They look at the next guy and say, ‘Give me a project, I’ll work harder than him.’ “
Like the boomers before them, this generation wants to work for a company that stands for more than just making a profit, according to Karen Cates, a former assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. And they admire ethical behavior.
This is true for most employees, of course, and one reason for the criticism of generational parsing. Every workplace has cheats and saints, loafers and doers, rule-makers and rule-breakers, regardless of age.
And while most people want the same things out of their jobs — that sense of respect and contribution — there is one big difference. Cates homed in on that difference in a piece for the Financial Times, describing a man in his 60s who reflected on the new-generation worker. “We wanted what they want,” he said. “We just felt we couldn’t ask.”
Shirleen Holt is a Seattle Times business writer. Tom Reese is a Times staff photographer.