Is there really no dignity?
Generational differences have always influenced the workplace. There’s nothing new there. But with Millennials running rampant across corporate America, that influence is creeping into our private spaces. Into our homes. Into our bedrooms.
Into our closets.
Yes, millions of Gen X’ers like me are faced with a new daily dilemma — or rather, a new version of an old dilemma.
When my husband and I began our careers, we both struggled with looking very young. To be taken seriously, we endeavored to emulate our elder Baby Boomer colleagues in a very fundamental way — we dressed like them. That meant pressed suits, sensible shoes and conservative hairstyles.
Today, our overlooked generation of just 46 million is sandwiched between the not-yet-retired 80 million Boomers and their 78 million children — our peppy younger Millennial colleagues. Now the pressure to emulate is hitting us from the other end.
Especially in tech, creative fields and any kind of start-up, there is an uneasy new reality for 40-something managers and executives: To be taken seriously by the most powerful generation since the Boomers, we need to wear jeans, sneakers and hipster t-shirts.
To keep up, dress down
I checked in with a number of friends and colleagues, all fellow Gen X’ers (born 1961-1981), to see how far and wide this trend might be extending.
Rob Green, 46, just started as a director at Amazon in Seattle, after 20 years at Oracle. In addition to learning a new role, he’s also figuring out what to wear to work.
“I started my career wearing a suit and tie, then moved to khaki slacks with a button down shirt and navy blazer,” Rob told me. “Now, I wear jeans and t-shirts to look relevant to these young kids at work who are smart as whips and can assimilate information at an incredible rate. Wear a suit and you’re dismissed as someone who can’t keep up.”
Here in Silicon Valley, Brynna Donn, 44, a long-time friend who’s among the few deeply technical women executives in IT, echoed Rob’s sentiment as she described her experience at Yahoo.
“There’s a lot of pressure to look young and hip,” Brynna said. “Yahoo is crawling with Millennials, which is awesome because they are super creative, but the pressure is really high not look old and out of touch.”
Okay, but so what? We used to dress older and now we dress younger. Does it make any difference to what we do?
Is there a connection between dress code and creativity?
According to some, yes.
Robert Todd who lives in D.C. and works in New York, worked at McKinsey before starting as a technology director for ?WHAT IF! Innovation, a high-end boutique consultancy that helps companies unlock their innovation potential.
Dressing formally can constrain innovative thinking, according to Robert. When clients are really stuck on a challenge, a more casual dress code can sometimes help. Robert suggests that companies with the most liberal approach to workplace attire are some of the most innovative.
But, he cautioned, shedding one’s corporate uniform, which for many convey status and hierarchy, can be stressful, especially for men. Robert advises clients to stay stylish and sharp, even if they’re letting go of dressing up.
Brian Miller, a Gen-X executive at biotech Gilead Sciences, sees the relationship between clothing and creativity as correlation, not causation.
“The innovative and creative folks who work in the lab, they dress very casual, and there are also snappy dressers in marketing,” Brian said. “If you’re down in the lab wearing a suit or jacket — hmmm, suspicion. So just be you — if you have talent and expertise, it will show.”
What’s a Gen X’er to do?
Folks in the workplace have always had to adjust to subsequent generations barging in and demanding acquiescence to a new set of values, priorities and norms.
For Generation X, it can often feel like we never really got to issue those demands. We modeled ourselves after our managers; and now that we are the managers, we’re modeling ourselves after our direct reports.
What remains to be seen is the longer-term impact of adjusting to a larger and more powerful age group alongside whom we work and are productive. Now that this age group is younger, new questions of boundaries are emerging.
Should we hold our ground? Wear what we think befits our role? Are we like parents trying too hard to be their kids’ friends? What message do we send them by changing our image to match theirs?