The oldest Gen X workers will likely still be in the workforce for at least 20 years, and the younger members of the generation may still be working for more than 30, meaning that Gen X will be forming the backbone of organizations’ leadership for quite some time.
Those that overlook Gen X in favor of focusing only on the youngest generations entering the workforce will miss out on a deep and valuable source of leadership potential.
They are often referred to as the “slacker generation” or the “forgotten middle child.” For our youth and young adulthood, baby boomers sucked up all the oxygen in the room, dominating our political, educational, business and social arenas. We were always under the shadow of boomers.
Many of us grew up as latchkey kids with both parents working or as part of a divorced household. We witnessed the beginning of ATMs, started our careers around the dot-com boom (and some busts as well), lugged around large cell phone suitcases and reached adulthood just when the internet became a daily part of life. We saw the Berlin Wall fall, the Cold War end, Communism disintegrate and saw the end of Apartheid in South Africa, all to a backdrop of grunge and disillusionment.
We are the last generation to grow up with crappy video games, with actual arcades instead of quality home consoles. If you wanted to play, you had to leave the house and mix it up with the ruffians. Our childhood was closer to those of the 1950s than to whatever they’re doing today. It was coherent, hands-on, dirty, and fun.
The label Generation X emerged in 1991 with the release of Douglas Coupland’s novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. The twenty-somethings in his book were characterised as overeducated, underemployed, cynical and disaffected – a ‘lost generation’ living in the shadow of their baby boomer parents, and rebelling against them.
This was the latchkey generation, where rising divorce rates and an increase in both parents working meant many young people were left to try and figure life out for themselves.
Generation X – the last schooled in the old manner, caught between vast waves of boomers and millennials… just think of all the things that have come and gone in our lifetimes, all the would-be futures we watched age into obsolescence—CD, DVD, answering machine, Walkman, mixtape, MTV, video stores, rotary phones.
Much has been written of generations clashing at work. Boomers clinging to privilege and rank. Gen X pushing out 60 year olds while blocking Millennials from rising. Youth fighting tooth and nail for a leg up.
To diffuse possible resentments, it helps to find common ground with other age groups. An understanding of shared values (or experiences) can smooth tensions. It can even lead to mutual gain.
What Generation X And Millennials Have In Common
The age gap between these two cohorts is significant, not vast. Gen Xers range from their mid-30s to early 50s. Millennials are in their 20s and early 30s. As a result there’s much these generations both relate to.
Comfort With Technology
Who entered the workforce just as computers hit it big? Gen X! They started with “dumb terminals” and sluggish desktop PC’s. Faxes evolved into email; the Internet sprouted, and mobile phones shrank from the size and weight of a brick to today’s pocket marvels.
Millennials have been wired from the get go. Their comfort level with virtual transactions is remarkable.
Difficulty Getting First Good Job
Millennials are struggling to get established. Competition is intense. 20-somethings may have to take on unpaid internships plus big student loans.
Gen X’ers also graduated into tough times. A recession left many to take first jobs substantially beneath their level of education.
Blocked From Advancing Quickly
Ask anyone in their 20s what’s holding back their career progress. “All those people over 40 clinging white-knuckled to their jobs,” is a likely reply. Boomers and Gen Xers make up nearly two thirds of the workforce.
Gen Xers also must deal with older workers hanging on longer. The financial crisis of 2007 – 2010 scaled back retirement plans for many 60+ workers.
Importance of Worklife Balance
Gen Xers wanted jobs that left time for other priorities. Unfortunately workplace demands, family obligations and economic realities made it tougher to achieve balance.
Millennials are using technology to free themselves from workplace shackles. Remote work and flexible scheduling can mean greater freedom. Except employer demands continue to conflict with personal time.
While Gen X may be equally capable at digital tasks as millennials, they also show a mastery of conventional leadership skills more on par with leaders of the baby boomer generation. That includes identifying and developing new talent at their organizations and driving the execution of business strategies to bring new ideas to reality.
Sixty-seven percent of Gen X leaders are also effective in “hyper-collaboration,” and are working relentlessly to break down organizational silos. Gen X leaders’ strength for working with and through others is enabling them to shape the future of work and generate faster innovation by getting people working together to solve customers’ and their organization’s issues.
Despite their growing influence and responsibilities at work, Gen Xers are most overlooked for promotion and have been the slowest to advance. We found Gen X leaders on average had only 1.2 promotions in the past 5 years, significantly lower than their younger millennial counterparts (1.6 promotions) and more senior baby boomers (1.4 promotions) during the same period of time.
While Gen X leaders are often under-recognized for the critical role they play in leadership, they are typically expected to take on heavy workloads. On average, Gen X leaders have 7 direct reports, compared to only 5 direct reports for millennials. While their advancement rate is slower and their teams larger, Gen X remain loyal employees. Only 37 percent contemplate leaving to advance their careers — five percentage points lower than millennials.
Demonstrating loyalty, a willingness to take on a heavy workload, and a powerful combination of digital and traditional leadership skills, Gen X is producing highly capable leaders that are in danger of being overlooked.
Now is the time to focus on strengthening the skills of Gen X and further developing their broad range of skills.