Striking a balance

Americans have always worked hard - it's the American way.

Yet companies seem to be raising the bar on hard work - demanding more time on the job with no limit in sight.

But Generation Xers may have something to say about that.

These workers are just starting to make their presence felt in the workplace, and they are just starting to throw out many of the rules.

They are often accused of caring more about life outside of work than work itself. But sharp demand for their talents gives them the luxury of asking first about vacation, pay, and benefits - then about the job. Face time doesn't matter to them; working from home does. And many are writing their own flexibility tickets.

The tight labor market works in their favor, but the Xer mind-set is crossing over to other generations, notably the baby boomers, and the result could be a new standard of balance in the workplace.

"Generation Xers - more than any other generation - are leading the march toward demanding a higher quality of life," says Joyce Gioia, co-founder of The Herman Group, a management consultant in Greensboro, N.C.

While baby boomers helped usher in family-friendly work practices, Generation Xers - broadly defined as those born between 1969 and 1979 - are pushing employers to tilt the balance even more.

A 1996 survey by employment firm Robert Half International found that quality-of-life issues rank highest among what first-time job seekers look for in a company.

Rainmaker Thinking, a Generation X consulting firm in New Haven, Conn., finds that the top, nonfinancial reward sought by people in their 20s is "more control" over their schedule. (See list, below.)

Take Bryan Bushman.

The new graduate of the University of Texas, Austin, just landed a job with credit-card firm Capital One. The appeal: 40- to 50-hour work weeks, minimal travel, and plenty of training.

He considered the big consulting firms but was turned off by the work culture.

"It really disappoints me," Mr. Bushman concedes. "It's like they drain their employees. They expect them to work 60 and 70 hours a week."

"A lot of companies say, 'We work hard, but we play hard.' Seventy hours a week is still 70 hours a week," he says. "I hate to say that because it sounds like I don't like to work."

No doubt downsizing has played a key part in how Xers view corporate America.

Many watched their parents miss Little League games and weekend outings to put in more time at the office - only to lose their jobs. Many Xers say they're less willing to make the same sacrifices.

But it goes deeper than that.

"Most of our generation spent a lot of time alone," says Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking. "We gained a powerful awareness that we can fend for ourselves.

"As a result, we're willing to walk away," says Mr. Tulgan, an Xer. "It's not whether we can afford to or can't afford to. It's that we're willing to."

Some economists say Generation Xers actually can afford to walk away. Unlike baby boomers when they were in their 20s, Xers tend to spend less. That means they can afford to work less.

Today's 20-somethings are also redefining success.

A brass name plate, a corner office, and a big house don't necessarily equate with success.

"In the past, the perception among successful people was that you would wrap your life around your career," Tulgan argues. "Today the most successful people insist that what makes them feel successful is that they are able to wrap their career around the type of life they want to have."

Tulgan says he now sees people in their 20s attempting balance in two different ways:

One type vacillates between what he calls "work-aholism and life-aholism." They clock incredible hours for two years, then take a break. Maybe they work for a nonprofit or work part time. Or maybe they take a total break and just travel.

The second type is people who are so good at managing their own time that other people hesitate to manage it for them. They get the work done on time and are able to do it on their own timetable.

Meredith Keiser agrees.

"Baby boomers were very driven by making money. For a lot of Generation Xers, that is less of a priority," says the 20-something executive director of FIRST, a nonprofit organization that encourages Xers to vote.

"Still, I have a lot of friends who work for Merrill Lynch and put in 80 hours a week," she concedes. "It's hard to make sweeping generalizations."

Of course all of this talk about telecommuting and leaving work at 3 p.m. to go mountain biking has the rest of the workplace screaming "slackers" - a stereotype that many Xers refute.

"I'm a Generation Xer myself. I certainly like my time out of work, but it's not the only thing on our minds," says Mike Woginrich, manager of recruiting for the headquarters of Mervyn's California based in Hayward, Calif.

"We're not lazy. That's what makes me so angry," he says. "We've hired a million Xers, and they work just as hard as anyone else."

Many Xers, of course, thrive on hard work. Meaningful work matters to this generation, too. What they don't like is hanging out at the office on Saturday morning waiting for someone to hand them a Fedex - because that's what people in their position did when they started 20 years ago.

"Generation Xers just want to get the work done and go home," Tulgan says.

And other workers are taking the same mind-set.

"What's happening is other generations of employees are infected by these ideas," says Ms. Gioia of The Herman Group. "So baby boomers are saying, 'If he's not going to work that hard, why should I?' and they're making similar choices."

Still, it's easy to be idealistic in a hot job market - or when you're young and without a mortgage.

"When the realities set in of educating kids, they may find themselves working longer than they wanted to," says Utah economist Jeff Thredgold.

Adds Bryan Bushman: "Because of the hot market, we're in a position of power right now. If the market takes a downward turn I don't think people would be quite so independent."

Top nonfinancial rewards Generation Xers want

1. More control over schedule.

2. Continuous training to keep skills marketable.

3. Exposure to key decisionmakers in the company.

4. Credit for their work.

5. Increasing levels and clear areas of responsibility.

6. Express themselves creatively in their work.

Source: Rainmaker Thinking

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