I recently read an article discussing the idea of loyalty, particularly as it applies to millennials – those of the youngest generation currently working. The article was titled “The Truth About Millennials and Job Loyalty”.  I found the article to be an interesting introspective of how “loyalty” is defined by someone within the millennial generation versus how older generations have defined the word. Whether it is right or wrong is, as the author put it, subjective to the point of view of the particular individual.

However, there is a core ideal to loyalty regardless of how various individuals may define it and the author included it in his original article from the dictionary definition – unswerving allegiance. Within the workplace, we tend to view loyalty through the prism of how it may have worked in the past, though I remain somewhat skeptical that our memories of workplace loyalty may be somewhat rose-colored in much the same manner that we tend to remember things from our own youths. We have this romanticized view that people stayed with companies and all was good from that time on. Much of this may have to do with how corporations were set up in the past. Older generations did not have the education available in earlier times that exists today and that levels much of the playing field in terms of workplace skills. In the past, those who obtained the high-level skills were, in many ways, guaranteed good employment by their respective companies because there were few alternatives. Whether these were always happy marriages and whether that loyalty is because there were few alternatives (in either the employer or employee viewpoints) is beside the point. The companies kept faith with their employees and there was little incentive for employees to go elsewhere.

Fast-forwarding to the current day, there have been significant changes which have altered the dynamic of loyalty and how it is viewed by both companies and employees today. While the millennial author viewed the idea of loyalty through the prism of generational separation, I think the issue is perhaps more deeply rooted in the changing environment that exists today with its continued and rapid technical advancements as well as the flattening of the educational background that has created a wider pool of those able to acclimate themselves to this environment. Those of the older generations view themselves as loyal to a company in the vain hope that such a perspective will be reciprocated by the company. Unfortunately, as the world has evolved and technology has rendered many manual tasks irrelevant, those who have not kept their skills up to date or have not similarly evolved into new roles with new knowledge have found themselves in increasingly untenable positions as far as job security. And, in those cases, no matter how loyal you may have been to a company, when you are no longer as productive, your loyalty is less likely to be rewarded by said corporation.

Does this mean that employees should not be loyal to their employers? No. Those companies pay the salaries of their employees which should demand a certain amount of loyalty. However, it is important to consider the definition of loyalty in this case. Employees should not be blindly loyal with a belief that the company is looking out for their best interest. But they should certainly work hard and do their best, recognizing that there is a reward in doing so. In addition to that, many companies offer opportunities for continued education in order to learn new or updated job skills. From their perspective, it is often easier to add job skills to their existing staff than to hire brand new staff every few years (or however often their turnover may be) and train them from scratch. In some ways, this should be viewed as a symbiotic relationship where both sides gain – the employer by having staff that is up to date on their knowledge and skills and the employees by adding to their skillsets which continues to make them valuable to their existing company (and others should they need to move elsewhere).

But having loyalty to the company should not be the sole definition. Instead, employees should recognize that they also need to be loyal to themselves and their careers. As a company is typically loyal to its stockholders and its own self-interests, the employees should be equally committed to their own self-interests and development. Loyalty to one’s career, advancing yourself as well as your skills, and staying employed should be the cornerstone of loyalty. Furthermore, loyalty to one’s own self-interest also does not equate to disloyalty to external interests (in this case, the company). Indeed, furthering one’s own development can be seen as a form of loyalty to the company whereby both employee and employer benefit.

As this business evolution has occurred, so have the perceptions by both employers and employees toward the idea of loyalty. Few people today work for the same company over the course of their entire career. Indeed, a decreasing number of people (particularly within IT) will work in the same role over the course of their career. This perception of loyalty and how it is viewed would be better viewed through the lens of how business has changed, the greater use of technology and how education has become the great equalizer by offering more people the same opportunities to achieve better employment in a culture and environment that relies less than ever on manual efforts. The perception that loyalty is defined differently by each generation is misleading. The reality is that the difference is due to the changing business environment and, as has been the course throughout history, the younger generations adapt to that change far more quickly and easily than older generations. It seems likely that in another 40 years, the next two generations will be arguing over the antiquated notions of loyalty discussed today.