The "New" Committed: Is Your Workplace Just Not That Into You?

Societal shifts have changed the way we think about a long-term commitment to our careers

I know this woman, Ann.

She’s been in a “committed relationship” for twenty-two years. I use quotes around “committed relationship” because she’s been committed; her partner has not. There was one stretch when he went missing nearly every weekend. And another when they separated for four months.

But every time, he came back. And every time, Ann took him back.

As her friend, I found this hard to watch. Why didn’t she pack up all his stuff and put it on the curb? Why didn’t she give him an ultimatum?

Because, she said, she needed him.

Until one day, Ann had a breakthrough.

“For all those years, I thought of us as ‘we,’” Ann said, “but one day I woke up and realized, he doesn’t think of us as ‘we.’ He thinks of himself first. So, I need to start putting myself first, too.”

It was a bittersweet time. Ann began to wall herself off emotionally. She stopped expecting anything from her partner and started treating him more like a roommate. At one point, she said she could literally feel her heart harden toward him. He noticed but didn’t seem to mind.

Eventually, they moved into separate bedrooms. They still live together out of economic necessity. He does the laundry. She does the cooking.
They’re still together, but the love is gone. It’s not an uncomfortable situation for either of them, but when I visit, I think, “Wow, it could be so much better.”

How many Anns do you know?

Probably more than you think.

Consider that Ann’s story is really about the relationship that employees have with their employers.

Think about your own; it has probably gone through some ebbs and flows. If you were lucky, you were in love at first. You were excited by a new job and new opportunities. But over time, if you’re like most employees, you realized that your employer didn’t always love you back. He sometimes hid the truth or closed down emotionally. He said he was sorry, but he still had to lay you off.

So eventually, you settled into a role of cohabitation: you did some things for him, and he did some things for you. It was comfortable but not great. A voice inside always wondered, “Is this as good as it gets?”

You’re not alone. In 1983 when AT&T announced it was laying off twelve thousand workers, a giant hole was torn in the employer-employee bond. By the end of the ’80s, over three million Americans had lost their jobs. And that trust has never really recovered.

A few months ago, I was asked to speak at the Global Mobility Summit. The attendees were professionals from multinational companies, charged with relocating employees around the world, mostly for two- to three-year stints.

They asked me to speak because they’ve started to have problems relocating younger workers. By some estimates, it costs $2 million to relocate a family for three years, and when the employees become repatriated, many of them leave the organization. Their hunch was that
millennials (born 1982–2001) just weren’t as committed as previous generations.

Of course, this isn’t a generational issue at all. It’s a societal shift. Why should employees give up what they know for a company that might fire them at a moment’s notice? Today, before employees think about making a sacrifice for the company, they consider the impact it will have on their lives and the lives of their family members.

It doesn’t mean that employees are disloyal. It means that—like Ann—many employees just aren’t willing to give as much because it’s not offered in return.

Of course, not all bosses act like Ann’s cheatin’ partner. There are many good employers who balance their fiscal and social roles. They want to make money, yes, but not at the expense of their relationships with associates. Southwest Airlines is a great example: it hasn’t laid off a single employee since 9/11.

Employers like Southwest understand that the employer-employee relationship is a love affair. And to keep their partners happy, they have to be great partners.

Rebecca Ryan and her team help cities and companies become great for the next generation. Can’t wait a whole month to read more from Rebecca? Visit her blog: nextgenerationconsulting.com/library/blog.

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