Forget the grey hairs and the deepening crows’ feet. At work, there is nothing more ageing than becoming an office curmudgeon, rolling your eyes, banging on about entitled youth and muttering: “It made me who I am.” Or worse, “Well, it didn’t do me any harm!”
Such curmudgeonliness is often evident when it comes to demands for improved working patterns, such as remote work, increased diversity and flexible hours. Last year, Xavier Rolet, then chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, hit out at “entitled” Goldman Sachs analysts who complained about their long days, saying that when he was young, he worked “far more than 80 hours”.
It is hard to sympathise with highly paid graduates, but such comments smack of curmudgeon. Was the past so great that it cannot be improved upon?
As any family member or politician will attest, it isn’t easy to navigate generational differences — and so too in the workplace. Just as the curmudgeon risks appearing set in their ways and resistant to progress, the alternative is becoming so bewitched by youth as to capitulate to any new idea in the hope of looking modern. As a member of Gen X I know the temptation of both.
A friend recently confessed her irritation that a junior colleague had been invited to an event that she had only just been allowed to attend after years of hard graft. What’s worse, she complained, this younger colleague did not seem to be grateful. But my friend was self-aware enough to see that her gripe said much about her own career. If she too had been offered these opportunities when she was younger, perhaps she would have found her working life more rewarding.
That is not to say there is no fun in tutting about younger peers. Reminiscing over grisly rites of passage and grumbling about colleagues is a way to make connections and pass the time. Recently, a teenage relative told me how shocked she was on the first day of working at a hotel by how much her co-workers complained about their colleagues and the customers. Welcome to working life, I thought.
Yet when curmudgeons are envious, they turn ugly. Gabriella Braun, author of All That We Are: Uncovering the Hidden Truths Behind Our Behaviour at Work and consultant on workplace dynamics, says it can become “poisonous; like keying a lovely car, we don’t get anything out of that”.
It can also prompt soul-searching. If younger workers expect better working conditions, Braun says, then it begs the question, “Why did their predecessors tolerate them for so long?” It may make people feel “naive, overly compliant and maybe ashamed,” she suggests. When #MeToo stories emerged, it prompted some older women to reflect on why they had tolerated such bad behaviour when all they wanted to do was their job.
Earlier this year, a lawyer at an energy company told me of his desperate desire for flexibility in his working day so that he could do nursery drop-offs and bedtime. The greatest resistance was from older men who had barely seen their children growing up in the week because of long working hours. His request for flexibility, he suspected, felt like a personal rebuke to their parenting, as if he was accusing them of being bad fathers.
I spoke to Joan Williams, author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America and founder of the Center for WorkLife Law, which researches and promotes policies to create gender equality in the workplace. She says we shouldn’t feel nostalgic for old work patterns. “I’m 70. A lot of things really sucked. On my first maternity leave, I had to take unpaid leave and was kicked off health insurance. Things have got a lot better, even in the US.”
But employees, she says, should acknowledge the role older peers played in improving working conditions, adding that they don’t always appreciate the struggle to get them. This is easier in organisations that don’t fetishise youth, and where workers in their fifties and older feel visible and have opportunities — all too often rancour between generations lets leaders off the hook.
Employers should see curmudgeonliness as a sign that employees may lack optimism about their working lives. Confidence about the future may spur generosity. As Williams puts it: “We should be pleased. This is the world we helped to create.”