IS LOYALTY in the workplace dead? Just last month, Lynda Gratton, a workplace expert, proclaimed that it was.

In The Financial Times, she said that it had been “killed off through shortening contracts, outsourcing, automation and multiple careers”. She seemed to be echoing the comments of other career specialists who say that loyalty has been sacrificed for the realities of a fast-paced economy.

But the situation may be more complicated. Depending on how you define it, loyalty may not be dead, but is just playing out differently in the workplace. Fifty years ago, an employee could stay at the same company for decades and the company reciprocated with long-term protection and care, said Tammy Erickson, an author and work-force consultant. Many were guaranteed long-time employment along with health care and a pension.

Now many companies cannot or will not hold up their end of the bargain, so why should the employees hold up theirs? Given the opportunity, they’ll take their skills elsewhere. These days, Gratton said, trust is more important than loyalty: “Loyalty is about the future – trust is about the present.” Serial career monogamy is now the order of the day, she said.

Erickson said that the quid pro quo of modern employment is more likely to be as long as I work for you, I promise to have the relevant skills and engage fully in my work. In return you’ll pay me fairly, but I don’t expect you to care for me when I’m 110. For some baby boomers, this shift has been hard to accept.

Many started their careers assuming that they would be rewarded based on long tenure. Now they are seeing that structure crumbling around them – witness recent lay-offs. Don’t their experience, wisdom and institutional memory count for anything? A long-time employee who is also productive and motivated is of enormous value, said Cathy Benko, the chief talent officer at Deloitte. On the other hand, she said, “You can be with a company a long time and not be highly engaged.”

Benko, who is a boomer herself, has seen her company shift its focus to employees’ level of engagement or “the level at which people are motivated to deliver their best work”, rather than length of tenure. Younger workers are likely to hold many more jobs in their lifetime than baby boomers did, she added.

More than previous generations, she said, they are asking themselves, is my work meaningful and challenging and does it fit in with my life? If the answer is no, they may move on. But the attitude is “I’m leaving, I had a great experience, and I’m taking that with me,” she said.

In certain people, though, loyalty shows up strongly as a personality trait, said Eva Rykr, an organisational psychologist and learning director of EQmentor, a professional development company. Some people just have a need to attach themselves to someone or something, she said. But that can be risky when the object of attachment is an abstract company, she warned.

“Perhaps you can consider loyalty to your co-workers and clients as the new loyalty,” she said. This would be “a practical loyalty that is based on our relationships”. “Looking at the bigger picture,” she added, “you can consider loyalty to your team, your department or a cause”.

But employees may be invoking loyalty when something very different is involved. They may say they are staying in a job for the sake of their company when in fact inertia and fear of change are keeping them there. Then there are the effects of the recent recession. Many people, if they haven’t been laid off, have stayed in jobs not out of loyalty but because they feel they have no choice.

Employers may need to prepare for profound disruptions as their workers head for the door when the job market improves. If the pendulum shifts, how will businesses persuade their best employees to stay? Money may do the trick, but not always. Especially with younger people, “you’re not going to buy extra loyalty with extra money”, Erickson said. Rather, employers need to make jobs more challenging and give workers more creative leeway, she added. More experienced workers can benefit from opportunities, retraining, recognition and flexibility.

Loyalty may not be what it once was, but most companies will still be better off with at least a core of people who stay with them across decades. If loyalty is seen as a commitment to keep workers of all ages fulfilled, productive and involved, it can continue to be cultivated in the workplace to the benefit of both employer and employee.

This article was first published in The New York Times.

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