Gen Y will change the unspoken rule about working through the holidays

Gen Y cares not for your rules.
Gen Y cares not for your rules.
Image: Reuters/Caitlin Ochs
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We’ve reached the beginning of the holiday season, when corporations hit peak hypocrisy, encouraging employees to spend time with family while subtly sending just the opposite message about the importance of work.

Depending on your family’s cultural expectations, the conflicting obligations can cause serious guilt and frustration. For one group, sociologists have found, it’s particularly treacherous: class migrants, or people who were born into the working class but have joined the middle class as adults. By now they probably know to brace for a sense of disappointing either colleagues or family.

That’s because, as legal scholars Joan Williams, Marina Multhaup, and Sky Mihaylo explain in a recent Harvard Business Review article, in “non-elite” households, “Putting work before family is not seen as a sign of moral purity; it’s seen as having messed up priorities.”

The authors, who are researchers with the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, describe how, by contrast, the middle class are raised with values that are more aligned with corporate culture. In theory, middle-class workers should feel less torn by the decisions they’ll face over what to prioritize. Bragging about working through the holidays comes naturally.

Class migrants, on the other hand, “have not grown up being told that working all hours is a sign of their worth; they may not want to put in those hours, especially if they have families who don’t understand why you are missing holidays at home for the office,” the authors write. “And due to the difference in self-promotion norms, class migrants may not understand that they need to constantly brag about how much overtime they’re working.”

Psychologist Barbara Jensen long ago identified the two moral camps here: “belonging” versus “becoming.”

But here’s the good news if you side with team belonging (and family), regardless of your class background: So-called Gen Y workers, who are now entering the workforce, look poised to change corporate norms around the holidays.

The authors point out that 61% of college enrollees in 2011-2012 came from a family without a bachelor’s degree-holding parent. Such “first generation” students are also more likely to be a member of a minority group and a low-income household. Assuming they’re absorbed into the white-collar jobs that colleges are meant to train people for, these class migrants, arguably, will finally reach the kind of critical mass among knowledge workers that should lead to cultural change.

As it happens, their timing couldn’t be better. These days, the science of productivity and creativity is on the side of holiday-takers. Studies show that workers who are rested and feel supported have more to contribute.

“Where we used to value the ‘ideal worker,’ someone who worked 80 hours a week until retirement, above all else, slowly we are realizing that if we let people have lives outside of work and be their authentic selves at work, we can be even more productive, more creative, and less burned out,” the authors note.

It doesn’t feel like much of a stretch to suggest that one perspective class migrants could offer is an alternative understanding of how to use one’s time effectively.  One day it may be middle-class adults who have to endure the endless mocking from parents and siblings who don’t understand their choices: “Look who just arrived, everyone’s favorite non-big shot!” “Maybe it’s time to find a job that’s more demanding.” Etcetera, etcetera.

To be clear, this isn’t exactly the point the authors are making. With their essay, they mainly hope to convince companies to include class in their inclusion discussions, because their futures could depend on it.