Job-hopping Gen Yers aren’t disloyal. They’re smart

May 30, 2008, 8:59 PM UTC

In case you were worried, yes, I still have a job. Seems some of you read recent reports of turmoil at Fortune and, with my conspicuous absence since then, feared the worst. Well, I heart you, too. And while I was actually on vacation and not busy sprucing up my resume, your reaction got me thinking about layoffs and their effect on us Yers.

Along with 9/11, the Columbine school shootings, Hurricane Katrina and the increasingly frightening climate change conversation, the layoffs we watched our parents and their friends go through were formative for us. No wonder, when it comes to our worldview, we’re a wary bunch; we’ve seen enough immediate and unpredictable upheaval to know that we can’t wait too long to live our lives. (Put off that safari or landmark visit too long, a Yer might tell you, and those animals and monuments may not exist when you finally make the time to see them. And by the way, the company where you worked for all those years you could have been traveling may not be there for you, either.)

For those of us who saw our elders give years — even decades — of service to major corporations, only to find themselves suddenly and unceremoniously jobless, corporate America often appears just as scary and unstable (and untrustworthy) as the world at large, if not more so. And whether that’s a fair characterization or not, it certainly doesn’t help when companies operate the way some of those in this New York Times story do — creating a culture of fear and distrust by, among other things, keeping employees completely out of the loop, to the point where a bounced e-mail from a now-former colleague’s work address is the first indication s/he’s gone.

Is it any surprise that Yers are quick to move to the next opportunity — or, to hear some recruiters tell it, be “disloyal”? Could any of us really justify staying “loyal” to a place that we’ve learned could turn us out into the street at any moment, without so much as a farewell e-mail? That sounds a lot more like stupidity than loyalty to me.

And even for those young people who — not being all that expensive anyway — manage to keep their jobs, the trauma of seeing older, experienced staffers get the proverbial boot is enough to drive you to the Peace Corps. Every time I’ve accepted a job, it’s been because I saw a great teacher in some person there, someone whom I knew I’d look forward to learning from every day, and who would help me grow in my own career. Sadly, those almost always seem to be the first people to go. And our so-called loyalty usually goes with them.

Even in my short career — which admittedly has spanned more than a couple organizations, from tiny startup to media titan — I’ve been through a half-dozen rounds of layoffs or more. And let’s just say it hasn’t exactly been an exercise in stellar management. Like when, doing double duty as a writer and the editor’s executive assistant, I had to attend a Thanksgiving party with a group of people I knew would be out of work in a week. (Yet more evidence that it pays to answer the boss’ phone, even if you find out things you’d rather not know.) By the time my boss’ boss started speechifying about how much we had to be grateful for, I was wishing Presbyterians had confession so I could admit to being the worst person on Earth. Talk about disingenuous leadership.

Then there was the time I was traveling for work and couldn’t get my editor to answer some story questions over e-mail. Assuming I’d annoyed him into silence, I practiced my apology speech all the way to his office — only to find the room dark and boxes piled outside. Not, as we say, awesome.

That isn’t to suggest we don’t understand the need for layoffs, or the legal difficulties downsizing companies may face, which can force them to behave in a less than laudable manner. But even if it isn’t an option to share information with employees via e-mail — or bring them up to speed at all — sometimes a simple “hang in there” or quick visit from a manager is all it takes to put a young person’s mind at ease. Without this sort of input or guidance, we only have the soap opera of management handling (or mishandling, as in the cases above) these situations to guide us, which isn’t much of a marketing campaign if you’re trying to retain or develop employees.

Never mind that it doesn’t do much to encourage employees to become leaders themselves. As Tammy Erickson at the Concours Institute notes on her Harvard Business Online blog, Yers aren’t necessarily eyeing the top job. “We were pretty surprised by the number of Y’s who said their boss’ job just didn’t look ‘worth it,’” she writes. Perhaps because it’s more true than ever that we want to reach our own personal best — which means having the best personal life possible, too, and maybe, you know, not having to fire all your friends — becoming CEO isn’t the holy grail it might have been.

So, all that to say, the talk of layoffs got me thinking about how some of those criticisms I so often hear leveled against us — like our “disloyalty” and lack of the “right” ambition — aren’t evidence of some sort of generational deficiency, but an almost direct result of the messages corporate America has sent us. Loyalty’s a two-way street, we’ve realized, and ambition’s only as good as the life it gets you. And if those are the lessons that we finally learn from layoffs, then I say our disloyalty and disdain for the C-suite are really a great testament to our growing common sense. Which ought to make the critics happy, since they keep telling me we need more of that, too.

Thoughts, feelings, rants? Do you guys have similar stories to share, or am I totally off on this one?