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CAREERS: MADDER THAN EVER

Were They Good Old Days?

Older workers have seen corporate America go through major changes. Baby boomers, they say, have more stresses--and options.

November 02, 1998|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Being laid off three years ago at age 60 didn't faze Karl Strandberg--it motivated him to take the long-contemplated step of starting a consulting business with his wife, Carla.

He feels far worse for a nephew who has struggled for years to raise a family while working temporary gigs, with no job security or medical benefits.

Faced with rampant change in the workplace, older employees have plenty of reason to be sore. But interviews with Strandberg and other 60-plus workers and retirees indicate that they have a surprising amount of sympathy for the plight of younger generations.

The workplace, they generally concur, is a tougher place than it was two or three decades ago--even though office work in bygone days was far from a day in the park.

"The layoffs that began in the 1980s and early 1990s signaled pretty clearly that the social contract they'd been accustomed to was really on its way out," said Strandberg, a Long Beach human resources specialist.

The rules of the corporate realm have indeed changed for all--young, old and in between. Older workers, led to expect a job for life, have found the rug pulled out from under them, with little time to regroup and gain the skills to do something different. Younger ones must work harder to hold their own. And disgruntled in-betweeners just fret and sweat, attempting to adjust to a new, uncertain order.

The shift to contract jobs is just one of the factors roiling the workplace these days and sowing anger, distrust and confusion. Also contributing to the disenchantment are widespread downsizing, wage disparities and the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to cheaper offshore locales.

It's no wonder, older workers and retirees say, that employees are boiling over--filing wrongful-termination and sexual harassment lawsuits and, in a few tragic cases, gunning for their bosses. They are reacting, experts say, not only to stress on the job but to the increased costs and difficulties of raising families, the rising workloads spawned by mass layoffs and the effort to keep pace with shifting technologies and changing markets.

"People are getting a bum deal," said John Cotter, a La Jolla management consultant who sits on the executive committee of UCLA's Human Resource Roundtable for Senior Executives. "Standards of performance have risen, and security is a thing of the past."

When Rita Boags, just turned 60, started her career as a chemist, she worked a dependable 40-hour week and could structure a life outside the office without paying a penalty. It was possible in those days, she said, to support a family quite comfortably on one income.

For many workers today, that is no longer the case. Dual-career couples, who often have to deal with frazzling commutes and nightmarish child-care logistics, are ubiquitous. Many employees find themselves hinged to the workplace with cellular phones, e-mail and beepers, making it impossible to truly get away from it all. Boags' sister-in-law, a director at a big utility company, attends many weekend seminars and staff retreats, begrudging the time she would otherwise spend with her family.

"People inside companies work very hard, long hours," said Boags, now a management consultant based in Castro Valley, Calif. "Survivors [of layoffs] are under tremendous stress to keep up with the workload. I really feel for them."

Decades ago, Genevieve Sultenfuss, 88, a retired real estate agent in Glendale, "took it all in stride" as a legal assistant, working 6 1/2-day weeks without coffee breaks for a boss who expected her to run errands and buy Christmas gifts for his kids and insisted on letter-perfect typing through six layers of carbon paper.

"I was grateful for a job," Sultenfuss said. She added that she harbors no bitterness or resentment and feels that people today "are too selfish and expect too much." Still, she added, "I don't think we had all the concerns they do now."

Without guarantees, younger workers have adopted the attitude that "it's only a job," said Aileen Ledford of Tarzana, who works part time for an insurance agency.

By contrast, she said, many older workers felt "married to the corporation," for better or worse. Still, her own experience with younger bosses has been favorable. Her talented female supervisor is just 26; their 49-year-old boss tells Ledford, 66, that she's "good for 20 more years."

Boags, the consultant, says techno-savvy Generation X-ers who work for her clients have taught her a valuable lesson: Take leisure time very seriously, even at the expense of project deadlines. Old hand Boags now finds ways to give herself mini-vacations by tacking personal days on to business trips.

With all the change, it's worth reminding younger workers that they are not the only ones affected by corporate overhauls and layoffs.

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