The Workplace Shift Part 2: Generation X Prepares to Take the Baton


In Part 1 of The Workplace Shift, “Baby Boomers Prepare to Pass the Baton,” we discussed how the Boomer generation is once again redefining the workplace even as they prepare to pass their knowledge over to the next generation of leaders—Generation X. But here’s the big question:

Is Generation X prepared to take the baton?

A few years ago, Jeff Gordinier wrote a book called, “X Saves the World. How Generation X Got the shaft but can still keep everything from sucking.” It is a humorous book with a very optimistic outlook on this forgotten and often invisible generation. In his book, Gordinier describes Gen X in the following way:

“Sandwiched between 80 million Baby Boomers and 78 million Millennials (aka Gen Y), Generation X — roughly defined as anyone born between 1965 and 1980 — has just 46 million members, making it a dark-horse demographic “condemned by numbers alone to nicheville.”

Gordinier believes that Generation X is saving what is great about the American Spirit.

Slackers or Unsung Heroes?

Generation X ­­was born between 1965 and 1980. They grew up as latch-key kids, watching their parents turn into workaholics, only to get laid off or face job insecurity. As a result, their view of work tends to be just that—work. Work does not define their life. This does not mean that work is not important to Generation X; rather, they place a high priority on family and personal life. Somehow this has earned them the label of slacker.

Now in their 30s and 40s, this maturing generation is preparing to take the leadership baton from the Boomers. Are they ready, willing and able?

A l995 survey conducted at Babson College by Professor Paul Reynolds revealed the following:

“10% of Americans between the ages of 25-34 are actively involved in creating a start-up company, a rate about three times as high as any other age group…it should help dispel once and for all the myth that today’s youth are motivationally challenged.” (U.S. News and World Report, September 23, 1996)

FACT: Amazon, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Google, and YouTube were all started by Xers!

A few more members of Generation X that you might have heard of…

  • J.K. Rowling – author, Harry Potter series
  • Andre Agassi – tennis player
  • Jeff Gordon – NASCAR driver, four–time Winston Cup Champion
  • Lance Armstrong – cyclist, six–time Tour de France winner
  • David Beckham – soccer player

Understanding Generation X

We have discussed in prior blogs that the cultural gap between generations reflects the diverse life experiences of the individuals in those generations. Generation X is no exception. Due to their size they are not as publicized as the Baby Boomers and Generation Y.  In fact, other than Gordinier and Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book, “Generation X-Tales for an Accelerated Culture”, there is little written about Gen X.

What are some life experiences Xers share?

  • Latch-key kids
  • Corporate downsizing
  • Watergate scandal
  • Energy Crisis
  • Activism
  • Fast food
  • Working moms
  • Expanding technology
  • Increased divorce rate

1. They were “latch-key” kids

According to historians Howe and Strauss, Gen X grew up during one of the most anti-child decades. They were the first children to be born to women who took pills to prevent them, and more children from this generation were born to single mothers than ever before. Divorce among Gen Xers’ parents skyrocketed, while dual income families resulted in latch-key kids who became responsible for taking care of themselves. Many went on to create non-traditional families by bonding with friends and co-workers. This resulted is a blend of work and social life where the boundaries between work and play are blurry.

This explains why they value work-life balance that was absent in their homes growing up. They are survivors and they made it on their own. Now they want to “work to live” vs. “live to work.” Makes sense to us!

2. They survived the 70’s and 80’s economic wars

This bunch witnessed the economic downturn and lay-offs in the 80s, leaving a dislike for corporate politics and distrust for institutions. This explains their cynicism about the future. They have witnessed some tough times—leading them to question reality.

3. They experienced expanding technology

One of the reasons that Gen X is so comfortable in a digital world is that they experienced expanding technology at a young age. They grew up with “fast” food; “remote control” entertainment; and “quick response” devices such as automatic teller machines and microwave ovens, all of which provided instant gratification. Because many of them grew up with computers, Xers are technologically literate and operate comfortably in a digital world.

They are independent, resilient and adaptable!

Tomorrow’s Leaders

Given such a harsh initiation, Xers should have been disastrously messed up.

But not so!

 The most difficult elements of their past may well be those that provide them with the strongest capabilities for today and tomorrow.

Gen X will soon have the opportunity to lead and reshape their companies. What will be on the top of their list? We expect that it will begin with breaking the cultural norms of corporate life — long hours, an intense focus on full-time work, and the office and title divide. They will share their desire to create better alternatives, including how to balance work with commitments beyond the corporation and finding meaning in work.

Are you a member of Generation X? Tell us about your experience!