'I'm New; When's Vacation?'


David Porter, an AT&T recruiter who has interviewed thousands of college students over the years, thought he had heard it all - until now.

These days, he says, undergraduate job candidates pose questions their predecessors never dared to ask - such as: How much vacation will they get? How often do employees see their families? And does the company offer flexible work hours?

"Generation-X employees seem to be interested in life after work," Mr. Porter says.

It's nothing new for job candidates to ask about vacation, he chuckles, "Generation Xers just ask about it earlier in the discussion."

The No. 1 goal for business students worldwide is a balanced lifestyle, according to a recent survey by Coopers & Lybrand.

While baby boomers led the way on family-friendly work practices, Generation Xers - born between 1965 and 1981 - want employers to tilt the balance even more.

The shift in values comes from a generation of workers who watched their parents miss Little League games and weekends at the park for work - only to be downsized. Many are less willing to do the same.

"On a very macro level, we do see different needs and different issues and different expectations for the generation just entering the work force," says Jerry Cashman, workplace program manager at Hewlett-Packard, based in Palo Alto, Calif.

About half the students the computer giant interviewed this year asked about work/life balance, he says, up from only 20 percent five years ago.

A life outside of work does seem to be on the minds of young workers. Some 55 percent of those between age 18 and 24 said they were willing to make only "some" sacrifices in their personal or family life for their career or education, according to a 1993 survey by the Families and Work Institute in New York.

Take Tena Lessor. After graduating from DePaul University two years ago, she took a job in Hewlett-Packard's communications department in Palo Alto.

She chose HP, in part, for its flexible work policies.

When she got an offer to coach girls track at a nearby high school, Ms. Lessor didn't hesitate to ask her boss.

After some negotiating, the two agreed that from February through May, Lessor could work from 6:30 a.m. until 3 p.m.

"My HP career is extremely important to me," she says, "but having other activities outside of work is equally important."

A big difference between this generation and boomers, is their "intolerance of inflexibility," says Charles Rodgers, chairman of Boston-based WFD, the nation's largest work/family consultancy. They want to have control over how, where, and when they work.

"Nobody I've talked to complains they are working too hard or too much," adds Bruce Tulgan, author of "Managing Generation X" and himself an Xer. Instead, they complain about having to work late at night or on the weekends, he says, and then not being able to take an afternoon off to go to the dentist or watch their son or daughter play soccer.

At the same time, downsizing and reorganizing have soured many young workers on corporate America. They have watched their parents sacrifice for a company that sheds half its workers every five years. For today's young workers, doing the same doesn't make sense.

"People are starting careers in an environment that is very competitive, where you have to out-work and out-think everyone," says Mr. Tulgan.

"It was like that in the old days," he says, but it also made sense to plan on staying with one employer for many years. Today, investing decades at one company "is too risky."

Such attitudes, however, often conflict with the traditional corporate work ethic and have earned Generation Xers a reputation as slackers. Yet Xers argue that they're just as hard-working as any other generation.

"Generation Xers are every bit as passionate as anyone else about what they do," says Bela Barner, a senior consultant at James Martin, a consulting firm based in Chicago.

"But with so much uncertainty in the workplace," he says, "it's hard to be passionate when you think you could lose your job on a whim."

Some companies are taking notice.

In a survey of executives at top US companies, 36 percent said business must improve quality-of-life issues to attract Xers. The 1996 survey was conducted by OfficeTeam, a temporary staffing firm in Menlo Park, Calif.

"Employers are beginning to understand that this isn't a matter of choice or being nice. This is what is needed to get employees," says Deborah Holms, who chairs a newly formed retention department at Ernst & Young, a Big Six accounting firm.

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