Slackers Go Way of the Flappers; New Recession Stirs Work Ethic

Remember the 25-year-old pampered superstar employee? Fair-cheeked, witty and well-educated, these workplace Mariahs were coveted by New York employers, who lavished them with chubby salaries, titles and perks. The kids worked long hours, but they also got to wear Radiohead T-shirts to client meetings and play Nerf golf in the corridors, and they never, ever worried about losing their jobs, because they were young, smart and special, and they could always find another place to work, for even better money. And for the most part, they were right.

That party’s over, of course. A dot-com collapse, a reeling stock market and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have traumatized the city’s economy, and formerly hyper-confident legions of men and women in their 20′s and early 30′s suddenly find themselves, for the first time, confronting their own occupational vulnerability. Such worry has been brewing for a year now, but the panic is officially here. These days, it’s hard to find any employee under 35 in New York who is not freaking out.

Amid this destabilization, employees and employers say, a strange new work ethic has arisen. After a long reprieve, gray-flanneled gratitude is back. Cherubs who six months ago thought nothing of two-hour lunches or four-day mountain-bike weekends in Moab now lash themselves to their desks like neo-Dilberts. Slovenliness is out. Dressing up is big. So is kissing a little ass.

“People have been generally willing and offering to do more work,” said David Granger, editor of Esquire magazine. “I don’t know that people are happier, but they’re working harder. Maybe that’s sucking up or it might be a fear factor, but it might be reality.”

It’s reality. Bosses can blather on all they want about the sanctity of “product” and “mission,” but there’s nothing like a recession and mass layoffs-to say nothing of the disaster downtown-to induce fear and inject some perspective into the formerly spoiled employee. On Oct. 29, MTV Networks-the once-invincible Oz of Gens X, Y and Z-announced that it would lay off 450 employees. Everyone outside of Carson Daly shuddered. A few weeks earlier, Mademoiselle folded its Capri pants and closed for good. The dot-com corpses are too numerous to count. If that doesn’t make you reconsider “optional Fridays” and your weekly midday batting-practice break at Chelsea Piers ….

“Our generation used to feel like we were so cool and everything was so groovy-we felt secure,” said Dania Ahmad, 24, an account executive at Veeder & Perman, a public-relations firm. “Well, now we’re not so secure. It’s almost weird to have a secure job right now. I think, ‘Oh God, my friend just got laid off, but thank God I’m O.K.’”

This dose of humility is new for lots of young workers, many of whom were sitting in their jammies riveted to Saved by the Bell the last time the country rollicked through a recession. They came of age during the go-go expansion years of a slap-happy economy, when company stock was considered a birthright even for rookies, and 55-year-old middle managers looked about as relevant as a flock of Stegosauruses. “Who remembers 1987?” asked one securities manager in his late 20′s. “Nobody.”

But now there’s a wake-up call, a little Studs Terkel for the young ‘uns. Me-first ambition has morphed into butt-saving maintenance. Once, 25-year-olds wanted six figs plus options; now they’ll settle for a health plan and free Cabernet at the Christmas party. With so many people out on the street, there’s no shame in being a cog of capitalism; it’s a lot better than being unemployed.

“It’s sort of like, hunker down, hold your ground, do your job,” said one 27-year-old magazine journalist. “There’s no more constantly looking around the corner.”

“There’s definitely been a shift,” said another 27-year-old, this one a banker. “A lot of the kids coming out of school in the past few years have had a sense of entitlement-’I deserve $100,000, I’m only going to work this many hours, I’ve got eight other offers, what else are you going to do for me?’ Now nothing is taken for granted. People don’t argue as much if they’re asked to work over a weekend or stay late. There’s not as much push-back on that stuff anymore. Before, people would whine or complain … now they’re just happy to have work.”

This is not to say that young people didn’t work hard before the economy started chugging downward. There were plenty of sleepless nights and 80-hour weeks; we’ve got the breathy Fast Company and Red Herring articles as evidence. But that youthful workplace revolution was accomplished on young people’s terms-with so much expansion, it was a buyer’s market. And because the competition for talent was so brisk, companies indulged the wacky, irreverent and borderline obnoxious.

But that jig is up. Already, the dot-com world’s breezy work-hard-play-hard philosophy-with its emphasis on freedom, creativity and in-office masseuses-feels extravagant, dated. The old bottom-line, starched-shirt paradigms are returning. “I would say there is definitely a sense that you need to be more profitable and productive, and the whole let’s-put-them-in-a-room-with-basketball-hoops-and-tell-them-to-be-brilliant thing without any kind of process and accountability is over,” said an executive in publishing. “People are getting back to accountability.”

For young employees, the change is more personal than that. In a perilous job market, they must now do everything they can to avoid getting canned. They compare the atmosphere inside their offices to that of a pet shop: dozens of well-scrubbed professionals doing their best to win love, even if it means-crikes!-putting on a coat and tie for the first time since college graduation.

“People are starting to wear suits and ties more often,” said the 27-year-old in the securities industry. “Typically you wear a suit if you have a client meeting, so if people see you wearing a suit, it means you are doing business. Some people are wearing suits all the time now.”

A 24-year-old woman at an online company said she began wearing what she referred to as her “layoff outfit”-a tweed J. Crew skirt and boots-when she sensed that her office might be cutting back staff. “I didn’t want to be too obvious, but I’ll be damned if I was going to walk out of there in jeans,” she said.

Conversely, other employees are taking a stealth approach, saying they are doing everything possible to avoid detection. One false move, they fear, could give a boss motivation to let them go.

“Instead of doing a business lunch, now I’ll try to do what I have to do over coffee, because I don’t want to set off any alarms with my expense reports,” said one journalist in his 20′s. Another worker at a cable-television network, this one in his early 30′s, bemoaned the end of carefree office video-gaming: “You know the whole freak scene, the unsaid kind of grimness that happens in any place where there’s a computer network and freaks? That’s off the table. That’s uncool now.”

Naturally, this proletarian and generally depressing recommitment has made some bosses giddy. It’s all about power: Once squarely in the hands of employees, the juice has shifted back to the bosses. And after watching people in their 20′s blow them off for several years or float easily from company to company, they’re feeling a bit of execu- schadenfreude.

“In publishing, you couldn’t hire young people-they were all doing dot-coms,” said the publishing executive. “The smart Brown lit major went to work for Ask Jeeves. What a fucking sham. Now they’re calling us back.”

Mr. Granger took no solace in this change of circumstances, however, calling his past year the “toughest year ever.” A sizable portion of his time at Esquire, he said, is spent reassuring staffers that their work is still vital and valuable, even as the economy roils. “The smallest things can get people in a funk,” Mr. Granger said. “In meetings, you are forced into praising the work people do just to say, ‘It’s not all bad.’”

And others caution not to place too much faith in this sudden workplace camaraderie; it might be just a temporary, brown-nosing reaction to tumult in the economy. Said Ken Ruge, a psychotherapist and motivational speaker who’s an adjunct minister at Norman Vincent Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church: “Putting in more face time, having to stay as late as your boss, even if it’s 7 or 8 o’clock-I don’t think I could dignify it as work ethic. I think those are fear-based behaviors; people are doing it out of their own anxiety.”

If anything, Mr. Ruge believes that many workers are reconsidering their working lives altogether, especially since Sept. 11. While the economy may have spawned some humility in today’s young workers, he said, the loss of life emphasized the need to do what one wants.

“A lot of these people have given up a dream for money, or to make money for other people,” Mr. Ruge said. “It’s funny, because there is more anxiety in the workplace, but there’s also more of a sense that time is precious. As one of my clients said, ‘Why am I spending 80 hours a week trying to make money for some asshole?’”

-with reporting by Gabriel Snyder