It’s a new world coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. You may have heard “great resignation” or “quiet quitting.” You may also feel they do not apply to construction. But they probably will impact our industry more than others. For a decade, we have heard about how bad the millennials are about work ethics. If you thought this was wrong, hold on, it will likely change. Maybe we should look back and try to understand why and how this has happened.

A Look Back

America was built on the Horatio Alger story. Who was Horatio Alger? He was an American author who wrote short stories targeted at the young and impoverished. He wrote in the 1800s and the central theme was the same in all his stories; you can and will get ahead through hard work, integrity, perseverance and loyalty. The stories relayed rags-to-riches for everyday workers. Many credit Alger for creating or promoting the American “can-do” spirit that made this country great. We also had examples in real life: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dolly Parton and Steve Jobs are some. While this can still happen today, there is another side to consider.

Sons grew up seeing their fathers work for a large company for decades, then retire with a nice pension. I believe this would be middle class and common throughout America in the ’50s and ’60s. Then things changed.

Companies got sold and pensions got cut or dried up. That son would see his father be forced to go to work at a box store to make ends meet. This is not the American middle class promise that the son or daughter was told about. The dedication and loyalty to that firm did not pan out. This did not happen overnight and is certainly not always the case. Some people work a long time for the same firm and it works out. My own family has two such people. Combined, they put in over 50 years of loyal service to the same companies. The owners are hands-on and rewarded loyalty by allowing them a voice in the company’s direction and flexibility on scheduling their work hours and private time.

However, even with all that partnership, they are both experiencing some resignation. The coronavirus made them think, “What is life really about?” It seems we have a choice: work to live or live to work. Most Baby Boomers, like me, seem to live to work. Young people tend to think differently. They look at work as a means to survive and pay for life. Why kill yourself for the company? I am sure business owners do not want to hear this, as they preferred the old days when workers were pushed to do a little extra every day. Encouraged by incentives, bonuses and performance reviews, co-workers were pitted against each other.

The father of this movement was Jack Welch, often called “Neutron Jack.” Welch took over General Electric Co. in 1981 and instituted radical, and often considered ruthless, cost-cutting measures to boost quarterly earnings. Welch would require management to rank workers and automatically cut the bottom 10 percent annually. More than 100,000 people lost their jobs in the first two years. Those workers thought they had a job for life. He also is credited as the first celebrity CEO. Wall Street was in awe as GE stock soared to new heights and Welch made huge salaries with a kind of CEO worship from America. In the long run, Welch’s strategy did not lead to long-term profits for GE. Today, GE is no longer the most valuable company on earth and the conglomerate that spanned the world, encompassing several industries. Today, GE is chopped up into three discrete pieces.

Before Welch, GE was the company that brought us the light bulb, power plants, X-ray machines and influenced industry and innovation, including the U.S. government, by helping put men on the moon with Apollo missions. As the author David Gelles notes on his research of GE and Welch, GE engineers could be seen working side by side with NASA back then. It was not all about quick profits; they had a vision for the future.

A Look Ahead

Maybe “Making America Great Again” is more about returning to the old GE days. My two loyal employee family members have also felt the pressure of coronavirus and pondered that life and work should be more balanced. Their employers have made some adjustments to allow them that balance. Both companies are doing quite well, and time will only tell if that continues. I can attest that both feel a sense of loyalty to their bosses that is not so common today. Before we blame young people, should we understand that things, times and attitudes change?