In January, I published a story about how loyalty was dying in the American workplace. The response to the story was enormous: I received more emails and LinkedIn messages about it than for any other piece I’ve written in my 14 years as a journalist. And what struck me most were the readers who wanted to tell me I had something wrong.
In the story I wrote that people seem to divide into two groups when push comes to shove the decline of loyalty in the workplace. “On one side,” I asserted, “are the bosses and permanent employees, the boomers and Gen Xers. The youth of today, they complain. Do they have no loyalty? On the other side are the younger mainstream workers, the millennials and Gen Zers, who feel equally disadvantaged. Why should I be loyal to my company if my company is not loyal to me?“
To my surprise, many older readers objected to being in the pro-loyalty camp. “Loyal GenX – Are you kidding me?” read the subject line of an email from a Gen Xer. Someone else wrote more kindly: “While I feel like you are right with most of your facts, you have gen x completely wrong.” They added: “My generation leads the way in workplace dissatisfaction and realized 20 years ago that there was no longer any corporate loyalty.”
We’re used to hearing twentysomethings complain about the state of corporate America today. But I didn’t expect to receive such an outpouring of consternation and disillusionment from seasoned veterans in the workplace. I had written the story for young people, defending their decision to rebel against the idea that we owe our employers gratitude. Instead, I seem to have inadvertently tapped into the silent frustration of more experienced employees. After all, it’s the boomers and Gen Xers who remember a time when their companies treated them better. For them, the broken “psychological contract” I described in my story is not a historical artifact. It is their lived experience. “You summed up everything I have experienced over the last 38 years of my career,” one reader wrote.
Readers told me they’ve seen employers renege on the social contract in a variety of ways. One boomer, a retired bank manager, acknowledged that he himself was fortunate to have worked for more than thirty years at one company that treated him well. But starting in the 1980s, he watched as other companies caved to the whims of Wall Street and cut employee benefits to squeeze every last cent out of shareholders. Today he wrote: “Corporate greed is paramount, at the expense of everything else.”
A slightly younger reader, who graduated from college in 1993, had a pension at his first job. Then, much to the outrage of his older colleagues, their employer eliminated the company’s pension plan and converted it to a 401(k). The reader said it took years for the nature of the betrayal to become clear to him. Another noted that layoffs were already the norm when he entered the workforce, but that companies at least carried them out with some dignity. “In the 1990s, an executive would be genuinely embarrassed to fire someone in a mass email,” he wrote. “Managers had the decency to look you in the eye when they delivered the bad news.” There is no generational difference in workplace loyalty, these readers told me. Employees of all ages are fed up with the way their companies treat them.
Why did the piece strike such a chord with older workers? I asked this question to one of them. “It resonated,” he replied, “because I still see corporate leaders telling us that we have to give everything and make sacrifices to make the company prosperous – prosperity that we are unlikely to share in.” Contrary to what I wrote, he has watched in dismay as his younger colleagues fell for the company’s line. “I see a lot of people, especially younger workers, believing in it,” he said. “Millennials urgently need to become as cynical, demanding and difficult as the press makes them out to be.”
This is, to say the least, not the way I phrased it in my story. It seems that American workplaces are full of Generation X and boomer Marxes. Millennials of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!
The comment reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a software engineer I’ll call Gabriel. Last year he was devastated when he was fired from his very first job out of college. Just a few weeks earlier, executives had assured everyone at an all-employee meeting that even though times were tough, the company was not at the point where it had to lay off people. Gabriel felt he deserved at least a warning that the cuts were coming. He felt he deserved to know why they picked him over others on his team. He thought that, as a top performer, he would be rewarded with job security.
In his new job, he puts in eight hours a day, five days a week – and not a minute more.
These did not seem like unreasonable expectations to me. But as we talked, Gabriel almost seemed ashamed of holding them. He blamed himself for always expecting his employer to treat him fairly. “It was my fault for feeling like I owed something,” he told me. Now, in his new job, the only thing he’s entitled to is his agreed-upon salary – and in return he puts in eight hours a day, five days a week, and not a minute more. “I never go further than that,” he says.
That’s how Gabriel, and many other workers, have decided to level the scales in the modern workplace. But as I wrote in my original story, I don’t think this is actually the world most of us want – a kind of hyper-transactional relationship between employers and employees in which no one owes anyone anything, in which we all adopt what one of my readers mentioned . a ‘mercenary mentality’. Even Gabriel, who has adopted the cynicism urged by one of my older readers, says he misses the camaraderie he felt with his old team when he gave his job his all.
“It felt like we were all winning,” he says. “I don’t want the world to be like this. But now I know how this game works. So I’m going to play it to win it.” He has come to the same conclusion as older, more experienced employees. They wish loyalty was still rewarded by their companies. But because they can no longer expect that, they have decided to adapt.
Perhaps the biggest lesson for me, based on all the emails I’ve received, is that I need to stop pontificating about the differences between the generations. But I can’t resist, so I’ll venture another broad generalization: Perhaps the biggest difference between older and younger workers today isn’t the way they think about loyalty, as I originally stated. Maybe that’s what they are doing about the.
The emails I got from boomer and Gen Generation Z, on the other hand, has not yet fully accepted that reality. From the office to TikTok, they are expressing their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs at work. They believe it doesn’t have to be this way and that they have the power to force their employers to change.
Some might call that naivete. Others might call it law. But the older workers I heard from call it something else. They call it damn time.
Aki Ito is chief correspondent at Business Insider.