The WFH effect: why workplace wars are on for young and old – Sydney Morning Herald

September 20, 2022

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A survey by a Japanese consulting firm attracted global headlines recently when it found that middle-aged employees are basically duds and deadweights. The survey asked respondents from 300 companies: “Is there an old guy in your company who does no work?” Just under 50 per cent said “yes”.
The surveyed office workers covered all ages and sexes, including old guys, so the large yes vote was part accusation, part confession.
The new world of work is creating its own fault lines.Credit:Dionne Gain
Asked what old guys did instead of working, the top answer was “many breaks for smoking and eating”, followed by “staring off into space”, “talking wastefully” and “browsing the internet”. Old guys did no work because they had “no desire to”, or because their favourable employment conditions meant their salaries were rising whatever they did or didn’t do.
Japan trails the rest of the developed world in the numbers working from home (WFH). Even since the COVID pandemic, 70 per cent of companies do not have a WFH policy, so millions of young workers can come to the office to personally hear old guys complaining about how many work hours it took them to figure out today’s Sudoku and other facets of lazy-old-guy “presenteeism”.
In countries like Australia, where federal government figures measured the working-from-home rate as high as 67 per cent last year and, as in much of the first world where it trebled during the pandemic, WFH has become the new normal, the rest of the workforce can just assume it can’t reach the old guy on his phone because he is
staring off into space while talking wastefully in an internet chat room during his toilet break.
An emerging question, then, is whether working from home has increased intergenerational conflict. The Japanese survey prompted polarised reactions: some quarters believe middle-aged men are lazy and entitled and think the world owes them a living. Middle-aged men say they are only distracted from work because they are trying to locate their younger staff who are lazy and entitled and think the world owes them a living.
Workers are turning on each other.Credit:John Shakespeare
It is a perfect intergenerational storm, with young and old equally certain that they are having to do the other’s job for them.
The WFH trend in Australia has moved alongside a tremendous shift towards intergenerational inequality thanks to billions of dollars in unearned wealth produced by the 2020-2022 real estate boom, which is currently cooling off in the way that a Tour de France cyclist pauses for a drink before continuing up that mountain. More people working from home means higher real estate values means more of the young shut out of the market means more suspicion that someone else is not pulling their weight. It’s only natural for younger workers to seek a scape (silly old) goat.
Australian researchers have not yet conducted a survey such as the Japanese one, but research by the Australian Institute for Family Studies has revealed another important intergenerational faultline in WFH, which is that 22 per cent of parents were “actively” looking after their children in work hours, while another 15 per cent were “passively” doing so (meaning their children were on their devices or wasting time, in training to one day
become middle-aged men).
This opens up another front of two-way resentment between employees who have children and those who don’t.
This breakdown of trust is most prevalent in corporate life, where the nature of work can be nebulous and you’re most likely to hear the questions, “What is it you actually do?” and “Correct me if I’m wrong, but am I doing your job for you?”
By contrast, it’s easier to support nurses and teachers who are going on strike, in many countries as well as Australia, for better conditions, not just because they seem underpaid but because we have a clear picture of what it is they do. Likewise, sympathy is higher for gig economy workers who are paid little for what they produce and, if they don’t, get nothing at all.
The current wave of industrial action, while causing overblown alarm about a return to the bad old days, is merely a sidebar to the massive cultural shift in workplaces where the breakdown of intergenerational trust is becoming the most urgent issue.
I, for one, am sick of intergenerational accusations of laziness. In my personal office, 75 per cent of the workplace believes the middle-aged man spends his days “playing on the computer”. Staring into space, I swear, can be hard work. But I am hearing a lot less about the beauties of WFH, and a lot more WTF.
As thousands of Australians return to their offices and thousands of others settle into the “new normal” of working from home, workmates are increasingly required to trust one another. If the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, is that weakness the person in the next cubicle who hasn’t yet come back from lunch, or the person who is having “an IT issue” at home every day at school drop-off and pick-up times?
Is intergenerational distrust irreversible?
The challenge in our post-pandemic workplaces is how much we really do trust one another, whatever our age. We could do worse than cross our fingers and hope for the best. Those Japanese employees harbour optimism: of the large numbers who see old guys as overpaid and underperforming, a third believe they will one day be that guy. Being over-rewarded for doing not much: one day, kids, this will be all yours.
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