Who Are You, Generation X?


The generation is called “X” because the symbol connotes an unknown, a mystery. Ask most people what comes to mind when they hear the phrase “Generation X,” and you’ll hear one word over and over again: slackers. The “slacker” label has stuck with them since the early 90s, when films like Slacker (1991) depicted American youth as cynical and directionless. Does it still stand true today? Is it time to take another look at this savvy, competent, resilient, non-slacker, overshadowed generation?

Who are you?

Who who who who

Who are you?

Who who who who

[Lyrics from ‘Who Are You’, composed by Pete Townshend of The Who]

In 1996, The Who re-released the song “Who Are You” with a completely different second verse than the first release. It was a “lost verse” and one that I believe speaks to the mystery of Generation X. It went something like this: “I used to check my reflection / Jumping with my cheap guitar / I must have lost my direction, ‘cause I ended up a superstar…” I can’t help but be reminded of some of my Xer friends who lost their direction in life at one time or another, yet now in their 30’s and 40’s appear to be in “superstar” mode.

 Generation X:

Who are they?

What do they want/value?

How are they changing the workplace?


In the 1992 book, Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe portray Generation X as:

“Free agents. They came of age in a society strong in choices and judgments but weak in structure, guidance and any sense of collective mission for young adults. Lacking a generation core, they are defined by their very social and cultural divergence. Aware that elder leaders don’t expect much from them, they feel little collective mission or power. Yet, their accelerated contact with the real world gives them strong survival skills and expectations of personal success…”

In their teenage years they experienced the following: Stagnant economy, high unemployment, large-scale layoffs, boycott of Olympics, Gulf War, Watergate hearings, Tylenol tampering, test-tube baby, MTV(Video Killed the Radio Star), AIDS, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Walkman, Boom box, alternative rock and punk.

If this list above doesn’t reveal enough, consider the fact that during their teens there was a 30 percent increase in women leaving the home and entering the workforce. Whether it was by choice or as a necessity, the absence of these mothers, role models, siblings or even neighbors had an impact on Generation X. They became known as the latch-key kids—home alone or hanging out at the mall grouping with friends. This led to traits of independence, resilience and adaptability.

Finally, let’s not forget the Challenge explosion—a picture that will forever be embedded in the minds of Generation X. This was one of the most important events of the 1980′s and for Generation X is considered one of the events that left a dark mark on them. There they were in school watching Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, preparing to enter space.  Schools across the country brought televisions into the classroom and every student in the United States was going to be watching the launch of the Challenger. When the Challenger launched the media showed the students watch with excitement the first minute of the launch.  Then the explosion happened 73 seconds into the launch and their excitement turned to horror.

Every generation faces its own set of challenges based on the specific events it encounters. As for Generation X, I think they drew the short straw. 


Now in their 30’s and 40’s they are self-reliant, skeptical, dedicated, resilient, adaptable, innovative and ready to take over corporate leadership…and we need them! With 70 million Boomers set to retire, and only 50 million Xers stepping up to replace them, a worker shortage is likely to follow. If employers want to retain this generation, they need to know what qualities they desire in the workplace.

In the book, What’s Next, Gen X?,  the author Tamara Erickson, reveals universal desires for most members of Generation X that are far different than the Boomers. She says, “Don’t expect that the same approaches that worked well with a Boomer workforce will work equally well with Xers.”  “And don’t assume that ‘when they grow up’ Xers will come to value the same things Boomers did.”

Here are a several things that Xers value at work:

  • The ability to balance work and non-work related priorities. The flexibility to choose how to spend their time. Unlike Boomers, for whom raises and promotions were ideal rewards, Xers prefer options such as flex hours, part-time work, and telecommuting that allow them to spend more time with their families
  • Money. It represents a sense of security and self-reliance
  • Relationships. Workplace bonds are often as strong as or stronger than family
  • Hands-off mentors. Micromanagers who are always looking over their shoulders irritate them. They are happiest when allowed to solve problems on their own
  • Feedback. Though not as attention-hungry as their younger counterparts, Gen Y, Gen Xers still expect fast and frequent feedback on their work
  • The challenge. Learning new skills, job-sharing, working with other departments. They often will get bored with performing the same tasks day-in and day-out for many months


Generation X will take over the leadership reigns as the Baby Boomers move into retirement or at least part-time work. Their leadership style will draw a sharp contrast to the Boomers and they will reshape the workplace as we know it today.

  • Their leadership style will be different as they create a less formal and hierarchical environment
  • They will be comfortable with adversity, willing to take risks and not content with the status quo
  • They will be comfortable with diversity and women in positions of power
  • They will be direct, and candid. They can take it and they can give it back!

When comparisons of work characteristics are made between Xers and Boomers, each group exhibits a different mixture of lifestyle values and work ethics.

  • Boomers tend to work hard and are generally loyal to their employer
  • They accept the chain of command and expect their managers to give them direction and lead them towards organizational goals
  • They do not like change

In contrast, personal satisfaction with work is most important to Xers.

  • They seek out opportunities to improve their work skills, not just doing the work assigned
  • They are loyal to their profession rather than their employer
  • They are more individualistic and have a high need for autonomy and flexibility in their lifestyles and jobs. Then need less directive leadership
  • They are not prepared to make the sacrifices demanded by their company/job if it means becoming workaholics

For Generation X, the most difficult elements of their past may well be those that provide them with the strongest capabilities for today and tomorrow. They will change the corporate template, and create organizations that are more conducive to their values. They will be able to reshape the organizations they lead to make them better places for future generations, and break the cultural norms of corporate life set by the Baby Boomers. The goal will be how to balance work with commitments beyond the corporation. The search will be for meaningful work.

What are your thoughts on Generation X? What changes in the workplace do you foresee?