Dilbert Has a Tattoo: The Rise of Individuality at Work

Michele Warg
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Someone once noticed that whereas most popular TV shows used to revolve around the family -- think Ozzie and Harriet, or The Cosby Show -- now they revolve around work. From CSI to Grey’s Anatomy to, of course, The Office, the focus of Americans’ lives these days, both on TV and in real life, is their jobs. For all our talk of preciousness of kids and family, the truth is that Americans today are flocking more to the rewards of work and less to the rewards of family. But in exchange for the devotion to work, employees want their jobs and their workplace to match their sense of self -- and smart employers are paying attention. With choice, personal expression, and individual fulfillment at all-time high, companies are doing everything from revisiting their ban on tattoos (30 million Americans now have them, including 1 in 3 people aged 25-29), to adding the “expression of gender identity” -- one’s inner sense of being male or female -- to the list of things they won’t discriminate against (100 corporations already do). Twenty-five years ago, we could measure changes in the workforce by looking at “megatrends,” such as the Rise in Technology. Okay, we got that one. But in recent years, there has been such an explosion in the number of choices in people’s lives that the only way to really know what’s going on, in work or anywhere else, is to look at the Microtrends -- the smaller, counterintuitive forces that are pushing and pulling at society. The key work-related Microtrends fall into three areas. Love and Work Employers would do well to pay attention to Office Romancers. As the sexes reach greater equity in the workplace, more and more people are finding love right there at the proverbial water cooler. In 2006, almost 60% of U.S. employees said they’ve been involved in an office romance, up from just 47% in 2003. And yet only 1 in 5 companies have policies concerning this. Isn’t it time for some frank new discussions about dating, mating, and breaking up, in the context of colleagues, clients, and competitors? A different kind of love, but which also profoundly affects the workplace, is that of Dutiful Sons. Most Americans think that unpaid care for infirm relatives falls to women, and indeed, most of it does. To their credit, some companies have tried to grapple with the challenges of the “Daughter Track.” But less appreciated is that there are also 17 million men caring -- on average 19 hours a week -- for aging and infirm parents, parents-in-law, and spouses. As compared to women, more of them are still working full-time, and fewer of them are comfortable discussing these obligations. But since companies lose tens of billions of dollars a year because of missed work due to care of relatives, isn’t it time to start addressing this, for the sake of the employees and the parents? As life expectancy grows, the care gap is only going to widen. Place and Work Beyond Love and Work, there have also been substantial changes in where people work. More so than ever, employees are working far from home, far from their spouses, or far from the workplace itself. Extreme Commuters. About 3.5 million people travel at least 90 minutes each way to get to work -- almost double the number from 10 years ago. These people have the potential to make a huge difference in everything from gas taxes, to car design, to ads in Books on Tape. But from a workplace perspective, don’t count on them for a lot of on-site overtime. And when you want to affect the “community” of your employees, know that you might have a rather serious radius. Commuter Couples. At the same time, another 3.5 million workers are living right by work during the workweek, but traveling back to see their spouses and families on the weekends. They may feel no connection to the jobsite’s external community, but on the other hand, these are the workers who are more likely to give their employers 24/5. Stay-at-Home Workers. And finally, there are yet another 4.2 million Americans who don’t come to work at all, except virtually. Reportedly, this group puts in more hours than on-site workers and experiences greater job satisfaction. But to make these arrangements work long-term, employers need to ensure these workers have the technology to stay highly connected, training to manage tele-enabled meetings and conferences, and access to suitable places -- beyond the family den -- to meet with colleagues, clients, and customers. Age and Work Finally, for the biggest small trends in the American workforce, look to both ends of the age spectrum. Summer interns aren’t the naifs they used to be -- these days, High School Moguls as young as 12 are starting their own businesses, and they often make serious money at it. As of 2000, 8 percent of all teens, or about 1.6 million young people in the U.S., were making money on the Internet. They won’t necessarily skip college or business school to compete with you, but you can bet they don’t want to spend too long getting coffee or filing documents, either. And at the other end of the scale is America’s Working Retired -- the 5 million U.S. workers who are 65+, twice the number of such workers in 1980. And that number is about to explode; three out of four Baby Boomers say they have no intention of seeking a traditional retirement. No, they want to stay on -- which will complicate life for younger employees, and for employers’ health insurance costs. The good news is that all this extra work could mitigate, or eliminate, the predicted Social Security crisis. But in the meantime, employers should expect for more requests for winters-off, low-sodium food in the cafeteria, and greater coverage of prescription drugs. As work in America becomes more fulfilling, it is becoming more full-time, both in terms of hours in the day and years within the life. But as a result, employees want their work to accommodate, and even promote, the kinds of choices they are making elsewhere -- from their love life to their family life to their newfound span of work life. As a management matter, that calls for a profound new respect for different personalities, schedule, and styles at work. If you think about it, it’s not so much to ask that employees be allowed tattoos, or gender-neutral bathrooms, if they’re going to give you 24/5, or 50+ years. At the same time, keep an eye on those gender-neutral bathrooms. The Office Romancers are probably sneaking in there together. Authors Mark Penn and Kinney Zalesne are the authors of the new bestselling book, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes (Twelve, 2007). You can learn how to discover new microtrends at www.microtrending.com.

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