Gen-X: The Forgotten Generation

With National Geographic focusing on Generation X next week, I thought it would be a good time to address Generation X in the workforce.

There are a couple of seismic shifts happening in the corporate world. Baby Boomers are retiring from the workforce in droves and Millennials are getting a big boost. Generation-X sits in the middle of these 2 large populations. For some reason though, Gen-X is largely ignored, our generation has been shortened and otherwise discarded. As kids, they were shaped by the decade of decadence, the Challenger disaster, and two working parents. Not to mention, they barely escaped disco. No wonder they defined themselves as angst-filled slackers!

Gen-Xers barely had a chance to shine. They were the majority of the workforce for the last 3 years before giving up the reigns to the Millennials. These are the kinds of statistics employers see and it makes them nervous. Obviously, Millennial culture needs to be embraced in the workplace, but Gen-Xers still have 25 years yet!


I had this conversation with another Gen-Xer the other day and we called out several reasons why Gen-X shouldn’t be ignored and what value we can bring to today’s workforce. One note – obviously we are talking about huge swaths of the population. This may not apply to your situation or describe you.

A Balance of Both
Not only were Gen-Xers directly shaped by the Baby Boomers, but they in turn shaped the Millennials. While this connection is by virtue of our birth years, it goes deeper than that. Beyond just being a transitional generation, Gen-Xers can balance what’s best about each.

Growing up in a Baby Boomer household means that we understand the value of investments and workplace responsibility. We saw our parents struggle to take care of their parents and us while both parents had careers. As a result, our work ethic is strong, but we associate a comfortable lifestyle with hard work. The one way we differ though is that we value our family time. Work/Life balance is important. Technology is an important way to facilitate this balance.

There is another way to think about this Work/Life balance. Gen-Xers bridge the divide between Baby Boomers and Millennials when it comes to what makes them happy. Baby Boomers would take any job and work hard. Happiness didn’t necessarily come from their work, but other things, like stability and community. Gen-Xers could choose their career paths with a little more deliberate design, but they also find happiness with personal fulfillment and their families. Millennials are the generation finding happiness across every aspect of their lives and taking lower paying jobs that make them happy.

The Technical Divide
Baby Boomers were the ones that invented technology. This generation did amazing things, inspired by events like the moon landing and the first nuclear power plant. Modern desktop computing and mobile technology were both pioneered by Baby Boomers (Gates and Jobs, respectively).

While Gen-Xers weren’t saturated with technology, they were exposed to it growing up through video games and computer hobbyists. As a result, they were the ones that brought it into mainstream business processes. I remember back when I entered the workforce in the late 90s, CIOs were relatively new, datacenters were being built and technology began shifting the way business was done. Gen-Xers were largely driving the conversations around technology.

Millennials may have shifted how we think of technology and business, but Gen-Xers brought it in and showed companies what was possible.

Experience and Loyalty
Two key negative events helped shape the way Gen-Xers view their careers. Shortly after they entered the workforce, the dotcom bust hit. This shook a lot of them up and was an important first lesson in how volatile their work lives would be.

The next big blow happened shortly after, namely the Great Recession that followed 9/11. While the Millennials had to deal with this event as teenagers or upon entering the workforce, a lot of us saw our hard work, in the form of 401k’s and investments evaporate right as we were just starting out. Millennials may have had problems getting jobs, but Gen-Xers had problems keeping assets just as we were getting going in earnest and getting our student loans paid off.

These 2 events hardened Gen-Xers and, in some cases, set their careers and retirement back 10 years. It doesn’t help that they were the guinea pigs for 401k’s as companies moved away from pensions. As a result, we understand what it takes to be valuable to an employer because we’ve learned it the hard way through layoff after layoff.

In some ways, these events have made Gen-Xers risk averse, meaning they are more likely to stay loyal to an employer because they’ve seen that there is no safety net in place. This message echoes in the back of their minds, as they’ve heard from our great-grandparents what life was like during the Great Depression. These stories are being told less and less as the Millennials come up.

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Gen-X has gained a career’s worth of experience through these 2 events, spanning less than 10 years. A side effect of this is loyalty. A Gen-Xer might leave a job for a better opportunity and more stability, but otherwise they will likely stick around and just work hard.

This risk aversion though can also be bad. Gen-Xers may prove to be more introverted in meetings and less willing to take the risks that Millennials are. After all, they’ve also entered the workforce at a time where corporate politics were crazy and speaking up against the establishment could result in being cast out. A smart Gen-Xer will realize this is no longer the case though and actively participate.

Groomed for Management
Many, many articles have been written about the aging boardroom and management gaps coming up with Baby Boomers retiring. There appears to be a rush to promote (or possibly an expectation of promotion) for a lot of Millennials.

Not only is Gen-X ready to step into these roles, but they are primed for it. We have the balance between embracing the new, but also avoiding risk to ensure steady growth. We’ve also been in the workplace for over 15 years now, giving us the experience of time to grow in our careers.

The long game is what Gen-Xers are all about right now. They are entrenched where we are and crave job stability. Our parents are aging and our kids will soon (if not already) be in college. We’re about to get pinched. Leadership represents a better class of job, more money and better stability.

Millennials are playing the short game. Right now, the job market is not treating them well. Their expectations aren’t matching reality and so, they hop jobs. This can be for various reasons, some good, some bad. Some use the opportunity to broaden their experience while others use it as a way to artificially grow their salaries.

Regardless of the reason, Millennials aren’t getting the expertise they need to manage teams. The challenge for Gen-Xers is overcoming a bias out there. Millennials certainly have new ideas and a fresh perspective, but without the balance of risk from a Gen-Xer, you could find yourself in serious trouble.  Again, a smart Gen-Xer could thrive in a management role.

Gen-Xer’s role in helping to shape Millennials is another great reason to move us into management positions. While Baby Boomers are too far removed from Millennials to appreciate their work-life balance, Gen-Xers get it. We were raised as the divorce generation and we’ll be damned if we’ll give our kids that experience. We want the same flexibility, too. Our reasons are different, but we both crave a Work/Life balance in a world where we are constantly connected.

Gen-X: Bleak Outlook or Opportunity?
Regardless of how the workplace shapes up over the next 25 years, Gen-Xers will be a critical part. Their experience and hard work ethic will continue to support their careers and help them to weather future economic storms. We have a great balance between the generations that will help companies transition from Baby Boomers to Millennials.

As more and more books and articles are published, think about how Gen-X fits into the scenario. Despite being stuck in the middle, we are going to remain in the workforce and continue to help shape it. If you are a Gen-Xer, take this opportunity to take stock of your career. With a little adjustment, you could find yourself suddenly moving up!