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, conservative hairstyles.

Today, our overlooked generation of just 46 million, is sandwiched between the soon-but-not-yet-retired 80 million Boomers and their 78 million children, our peppy younger Millennial colleagues. The pressure for emulation has begun to hit 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 amongthe 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. 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.”

OK, 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 DC and works in New York, worked at McKinsey before joining ?WHAT IF! Innovation, a high-end boutique consultancy that helps companies unlock their innovation potential.

Robert, his firm’s Technology Director, says that dressing formally can constrain innovative thinking. When clients are really stuck on a challenge, a more casual dress code can sometimes help. Not only that, he 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. 

What’s a Gen X’er to do?

Folks in the workplace have always had to adjust to subsequent generations barging in and demanding, to one degree or another, 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 be 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?

I welcome your musings, opinions and predictions.

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  1. John Hennessy

    As a boomer myself I think we created the Millennials.  Of course this is true from a biological point of view, my wife and produced two, and we think they are pretty great.

    But from a business sense, we boomers also created the business environment into which the millennials were launched, and its something boomers should not be too proud of.  I don’t think we meant to create the disruption that has happened over the last half of the last decade, but it happened on our watch, so we should take the hit.

    These millennials had to figure out and work within a business environment that had been tipped on its head.  But they stuck it out, went with the flow and are now poised to move it ahead in ways that none of us boomers might have been able to do.

    So kudos to Millennials and godspeed!  They’re smart, oh so quick, and unfazed by the baptism by fire through which they had to endure.  I am sorry it happened, but somehow you guys seem the stronger for it.

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