Recently the differences between the generations currently active in the workforce have been highlighted in the media, likely because the Millennials, or Generation Y, has been entering it full force. They are a large generation, and their participation will make a difference in how companies and even small businesses are run and operate.
While that is true, it’s important to note that the generation sandwiched in between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials – Generation X – is currently taking the reins of leadership from the Baby Boomers as they retire and move out of the workforce. The attitudes, aptitudes, and abilities of new recruits make a real difference in an army, but they are molded, shaped, and moved about the battlefield by their captains, majors, colonels, and generals. The leadership in the field right now was born roughly between the years 1961 – 1981: Generation X. Business owners and company leaders need to understand this demographic if they are to get good performance from their workers.
William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote The Fourth Turning to describe what they believe to be a pattern of generational behavior that has repeated itself throughout American – and, before that English – history. In their understanding, there are four generational archetypes: heroes, artists, prophets, and nomads. Generational behavior arises out of the repeated boom/bust cycle of peace and prosperity followed by decadence, decline, and war. A generation raised in a prosperous time will act differently than one raised during war or economic depression. The skills they will value will be based on what is necessary to prosper during current conditions. They will also be unlikely to understand their parents’ values and behaviors and will react either according to or against expectation depending on what stage of life they are in.
From the standpoint of American history it’s easy to look back on Baby Boomer history and see that they were raised in a time of plenty by parents who were raised in a time of war and scarcity and that they rebelled against the expectations of tradition and conformity. The generation that followed the Baby Boomer generation was Generation X, but what shaped Generation X and what values and behaviors characterize them?
One of the first things to understand about Generation X is that this is a generation of children raised in society that was rapidly becoming very anti-child. Whereas the Baby Boomers were raised in stable families in a society with fairly strict behavioral expectations, when they hit adulthood they, and the generation that came before it, began lobbying for more personal rights and a looser sexual code.
Roe v. Wade and the legalization of abortion happened during Generation X’s childhood. Birth control became widespread in use. Couples divorced and cohabitated proudly for the first time. Women went back to work, leaving their children at home. Generation X was the first “latchkey” generation, and as a result of a confluence of factors, these kids got into more trouble. They had sex earlier, they used drugs and alcohol more, they experienced higher levels of abuse. They committed more crime, and they killed themselves at heretofore unknown rates. Their childhood were far more chaotic than those of the Boomers.
What’s more, Generation X came of age at a time when the employment landscape was fracturing. The NAFTA agreement resulted in the loss of the kind of jobs previous generations had built middle class lifestyles (and expectations) upon. What’s more, the cost of college had increased considerably. For many Gen Xers this meant they invested in an education that did not pay off very well, at least at first. College educated millennials are familiar with the frustration that comes with finding only unskilled or customer service positions that do not make enough money to pay off student loans. They were not the first generation to experience this.
Generation X also got crushed when the housing market crashed. Many of them bought more than they could afford thinking that housing prices could only go up – as they had for the past half century or so. After the economic downturn of 2008, they found themselves in two kinds of debt – student loan and housing – facing another challenging employment landscape or stuck in positions with no hope of advancing until Boomers retired. And suddenly Boomers, also experiencing financial turmoil, weren’t retiring. Most Gen Xers know they will never see the pensions or retirement options their parents and grandparents had.
All of the above experiences have created a generational worker who is motivated largely by individual (rather than corporate or communal) goals, who distrusts large institutions, and who is pragmatic rather than idealistic. Gen Xers are self-reliant. They do not feel that previous generations invested heavily in them, and they likely will not return the favor to the generations who come of age behind them. They are able to make hard choices without becoming sentimental too and may push to remove or retire workers who are no longer productive.
Managers with many Generation X workers should avoid appealing to what is “good for the company” or make bright promises to them, as Gen Xers are unlikely to care about the first or believe the second. On the other hand, if the proper incentives are given, these workers can be very productive. They’re able to communicate and are open to feedback from their superiors. They’re also far more competent with technology than Boomers, nearly as good at it as Millennials, and they’re more comfortable with diversity and change in the workplace than older workers.
Gen Xers keep their heads down and their noses to the grindstone in the workplace. They don’t expect special consideration, and they demand little hand holding. They also have several decades of work experience under their belts and can get the work done, whether it’s as mundane as paperwork, as vital as new product development, or as challenging as issues like dealing with the California drought. Generation X has been open to entrepreneurship as well because traditional, steady work was less available and taking a risk was therefore less risky.
Every generation has its strengths and weaknesses, and Generation X won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you manage workers from this age group, however, knowing how to get the best out of them – and avoid the worst – will be crucial to your business or organization.