Your money or your life?

In hi-tech, the younger generation is trying to establish a toehold in the industry but wants the freedom to be footloose as well.

High tech world_58 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
High tech world_58
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘You caught me on the right day – I just resigned,’ said Dotan, a young computer engineer strolling through Kiryat Atidim, the vast, sleek hi-tech park near North Tel Aviv.
“I want to have a life, I want to see my family, I don’t want to work 75 hours a week, six days a week and get a call from my team leader on Saturday night at 10,” he said, looking very relieved that he was out of that.
Dotan just turned 30, which led him to do some “soul searching.” He plans to take a month off, go overseas, then come back and “look for a job where I can come home at 6 p.m. and go to the gym.”
Eating lunch at an outdoor table amid Kiryat Atidim’s glass-and-steel office buildings, Einat Fernbach, 36, says she also was working like a dog at a hi-tech company until she did some soul searching upon hitting 30. She quit the field, got into moviemaking and alternative medicine and, after a six-year hiatus from the industry, just took a job as a quality assurance technician – but only for three days a week so she can keep up with her movies and medicine.
“When I started in hi-tech, nobody would let you work three days a week; but now, because of Generation Y, it’s become accepted,” she says, using the term for the generation born in the 1980s. “They’re not chasing after money and advancement, they’re not willing to work overtime all hours, they want to take long holidays, and the companies have to let them or they’ll just quit and go to another company.
“When I was starting, I had to fight for these things, and I knew I was endangering my job by doing so, until I finally couldn’t take it anymore. But the young people in hitech have had it like this ever since they entered the workforce. They take these ‘privileges’ for granted. Having freedom on the job comes naturally to them.”
The image of the hi-tech professional is that of a workaholic, one who is on the computer for work even when at home, one in a high-pay, high prestige, life-consuming rat race. But Generation Y, or at least a significant part of it, seems to be different.
Mainly because the industry is so impermanent, with technologies constantly changing and companies opening, closing, moving and “reinventing” themselves, with employers and employees job hopping like mad, these 20-somethings, or many of them, take a “live-for-today” approach to their jobs. They are no longer willing to do whatever the boss says, take on any thankless project, work all hours and defer holidays, build their lives around their jobs – because they know these jobs won’t last, anyway.
Yoav, 31, a website producer at Kiryat Atidim, married with a young child, said he liked the company he’s working for now, the proof being that he’s been there for two whole years.
“I worked at five different start-ups before I came here. I usually stay at a company for a year and move on,” he said. “In hi-tech everything is spontaneous; you jump from place to place. There are no Catholic weddings – divorce is part of the deal.”
With long-term career planning being essentially futile, what many in Generation Y are doing is redefining how work fits into one’s life. They’re insisting on reasonable, flexible hours, devoting more time and energy to their friends and hobbies and putting a premium on how interesting a job is, with less emphasis on promotion and money.
Again, this is not everyone in Generation Y or even necessarily a majority, but it is a significant phenomenon that was not seen in earlier generations at the start of their careers.
The young hi-tech professionals I interviewed at Kiryat Atidim either were in jobs that offered them the flexibility, independence and stimulation they sought, or they were determined to find such a job ASAP.
“The job I’m in doesn’t fulfill me; I can’t express myself in it at all,” said Tom, 24, a Web designer, explaining that his problem at work was that he had no contact with people and spent all his time in front of a computer. “The salary is good, but I’d rather work for less money in a job that I enjoyed more. My parents don’t understand me – they always said I should concentrate on getting good grades in school and finding a steady, secure, well-paying job. For me, it’s more about doing what I want.”
SO IS this approach good or bad? Is it an improvement on the work ethic of earlier generations of grinds, or is it a devolution to selfishness and indifference? The answer: yes and no.
“Generation Y has the same level of productivity in their work as previous generations, they just go about it differently,” said Sigal Srur, head of human resources for 888, a Gibraltar-based Internet gambling company whose workforce of nearly 1,000 is 70 percent 20-somethings, a large proportion of whom are Israelis.
“The young people care very, very much about the projects they work on. They bring a great deal of creativity to the task, they cooperate with each other and are far more ‘transparent’ than previous generations – they don’t hoard information, they instinctively share it because they grew up in a world where information flows freely.
“It’s not so different from what they do away from the job – getting information from communications technology and sharing it on Facebook,” said Srur, 45. “But then on Wednesday they may tell their team leader that they’ll be coming in later in the day because they’ve got something personal to attend to – like their capoeira class.”
A key challenge for hi-tech companies, whose owners and top managers tend to be members of Generation X – born in the 1960s and ’70s – is not to “force their values” on the younger folks and instead to adapt to their style, said Srur.
“This is an issue for every company; this is what management is talking about. Generation Y is pointing the way to the future of the workplace,” she said.
Even though they jump from company to company every year or two and try to make sure to make time for their personal lives, during work hours these young people give it their all – partly out of pride of workmanship but also for the most practical reasons.
“I know that when I apply for a job at a new company, there are going to be people there who know me from where I’m working now,” said Inbal, 27, a quality assurance technician. “This is a small country, and the industry is centered around Tel Aviv. Your reputation follows you.”
Though the members of Generation Y work for companies, some with thousands of workers, they have the mentality of the self-employed, of journeymen and women. I asked several young people at Kiryat Atidim what they valued most in a job – money, advancement or stimulation – and everyone immediately answered “stimulation.” They wanted to work with new technologies in new challenges in new environments.
“Their ambitions go horizontally, not vertically,” said Srur. “They’re not interested in climbing the corporate ladder, in being the boss over large numbers of employees, and they’re not interested in taking their boss’s job.”
And instead of job security, they have opportunity networks. “What everybody’s trying to do,” said Tom, who at 24 is on his second company and already dreaming about his third, “is make as many contacts in each company as you can. Everyone’s trying to build themselves a safety net of people who, if they’re not your closest friends, are people you can turn to when you’re looking to change jobs or find one.”
I tell him this sounds like an ad for Facebook.
“That’s the beauty of Facebook,” he agreed.
BUT IT’S not all flex time and tai chi for Generation Y. This is still a business they’re in, a very lucrative business. Dr. Michal Frenkel, a senior lecturer on work culture in Hebrew University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, says that while this free spirit is notable among hi-tech’s 20- somethings, she finds it only in a minority.
“Most people in this generation, certainly in Israel, are playing the traditional game.
True, they don’t expect seniority and they go from company to company, but they’re still looking first for money and advancement.
They may have no loyalty to their company, but we’re still seeing a lot of workaholism, of long hours on the job, of addiction to work at the expense of their personal life.”
On a bench eating a sandwich between cellphone calls, Noa, 27, an applications engineer, says she likes her job just fine. She works about 45 hours a week, with flexible hours and the right to save up vacation days to take month-long trips abroad.
“I like to travel, go to the gym, the beach, read books. The company gives us good conditions so we’ll stay on,” she said, 18 months into this job, her first in the industry.
But she and her colleagues have “no loyalty to the company. Everything’s temporary, you’re always moving on. It’s a meat market; you go wherever they offer you the most money,” she said.
Single, she said that youth is a time “to give it the big push, sacrifice your time and then, after you have kids, you can afford to slow down and find a balance between work and your personal life.”
I ask if she thinks her generation, with its freedom, has it better than her parents’ generation, with its security – with the expectation of staying at the same company for decades, until pension.
“I think my parents’ generation had it better,” she said. “Mine has no peace of mind. We’re always trying to advance, always trying to prove ourselves. Everything’s temporary. We’re more mobile, but we have no security in anything. I’d like to know that the job I’m doing now will be one I can still do in another 20 years, but I can’t say I’ll be able to do it for more than another two, maximum three, years. And because of this, you see a lot of people in hi-tech getting burned out.”
On his last day at his job, Dotan was commiserating in one of Kiryat Atidim’s courtyards with Anat, 27, who works in chip verification and can’t wait to save enough money to go overseas and get an MBA in strategic consulting. She tells the same story as Dotan about their company, which they consider an aberration in hi-tech because it exploits its young workers so badly.
“They expect 150% and show very little gratitude,” she said. “The money’s good, but you give your life to the job. They have a gym in the building, but nobody uses it because they don’t have time. I don’t mind working long hours at all, but I want to feel like I’m appreciated.”
Not only does Anat feel no loyalty to her company, but she takes the general view that “if you show loyalty to your company, they’ll walk all over you.”
She knows that her life, like the company she works for, is atypical for Generation Y.
“My boyfriend works for a hi-tech company, puts in nine hours a day, comes home, picks up his guitar or goes to the gym. I hardly ever have a chance to be with him.
When I’m on my computer at home, I spend more time on my company’s website than on my Facebook account, and that’s very rare for my generation. My friends come home from work, they open Facebook or Ynet, they don’t want to know what’s happening on the job.”
Srur said it’s important for older, more experienced people in hi-tech, those who work in teams or as managers of Generation Y members, not to judge them harshly for their relatively unburdened attitude. Some of the older generation, however, can’t help it.
“I have a brother who’s part of Generation Y working in hi-tech, and I see him and his friends and they’re all just looking out for No. 1. They want to fulfill themselves, but it often comes at the expense of the people they work with,” said Eran, 41, who’s in research and development.
“You’ve got these young people on a team and they want to take time off to study something, and the manager doesn’t want to lose them. The manager knows that the older people have a different work ethic, that they’ll always do whatever the company asks, and the manager wants the least possible hassle, so he asks the older guys to pick up the slack.”
Yet at the same time that many in the new generation are leaving work early to do their thing, so are a lot of the older employees.
“We just hired a guy who’s around my age,” said Eran, “and one of the things in his contract is that his work day ends at 5 p.m.”
Sociologist Frenkel is seeing the same phenomenon.
“The people in hi-tech who are now in their late 40s and 50s, they’ve put in their time, they’ve seen the industry go from feast to famine, and they figure it’s time they started living, so they’re suddenly ready to make less money in return for having the time to travel to New Zealand and take judo.”
I asked Yoav, the 31-year-old Web producer, where he saw himself in another 10 years. He laughed lightly. “I don’t think 10 years ahead. Who knows?” After working at five companies for about a year each, he’s “settled down” at his current firm for the last two years, but he knows that in another year or two he’ll be moving on again.
Asked if the owners and top managers of his company, who are in their late 30s and 40s, know about his plans, Yoav thought for a moment, then said: “I don’t think they know where they’ll be in another year or two.”