Managing people

Understanding Generation X

Gen X is the generation who watched their parents work incredibly hard and long, often remaining loyal to one company, only to be miserable and unsatisfied at the end. This motivates Gen Xs to seek a healthy compromise, whereby work and lifestyle is flexible and balanced, satisfying their financial, family and personal needs.

The Gen X profile

We shouldn’t pigeonhole, label or stereotype any demographic or generation, but having a better understanding of the backstories and perceptions that surround a particular group of people –  a generation, helps us appreciate their differing attitudes, viewpoints and motivations. This in turn enables us to more effectively lead and engage them. 

Generation X is described or referred to as the: 

  • grunge generation
  • MTV generation
  • options generation
  • baby busters
  • latchkey generation
  • sandwich generation
  • work hard play hard generation

The term Generation X first appeared in the 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Copeland.

Gen Xs are beginning to fill the leadership roles as baby boomers retire. Where boomers have the experience, Gen Xs also have the qualifications, so they're talent well worth keeping in the business.

The ‘latchkey’ children of baby boomer parents who often both worked, they are portrayed as the neglected ‘middle child’, squeezed between the older baby boomers and the younger millennials. Not only have they grown up in a largely ‘hands-off’ culture without much adult presence, their parents are also the most divorced generation in our history. 

They are the first generation to use computers in their homes and schools. Brought up in an era of technological and social change, they’re tech-savvy and open to change. They thrive on diversity, challenge, responsibility, honesty, and having creative input. As an adaptable and fiercely independent generation, Gex Xs are more peer-oriented than previous generations striving hard for a balanced work and family life. 

Gen Xs currently fall into the age range of roughly 40 to mid-50s and are entering either the ‘opportunity decade’ or a mid-life crisis. Whichever it is, many are soul searching, seeking greater meaning in their lives and considering significant changes to their career direction and lifestyle.

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A snapshot of Gen X Traits:

  • Big spenders and possess purchasing power when it comes to the higher-end purchases.

  • More diverse than any previous generation as a result of immigration and a growing female workforce.

  • Tech-savvy, having built the bridge from analogue to digital. They’ve developed some of today’s most influential websites, which have revolutionised how the world operates and where we source information, for example YouTube, Amazon, Wikipedia, and Google.

  • In the prime of their working lives and highly invested in their jobs.

Gen X shaped by events

Gen X grew up against an international background of the Cold War, Watergate, corporate greed, AIDS, Live Aid, the Dot Com Boom and Bust of the '90s, nuclear disasters, Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, fall of the Berlin Wall, the Global Financial Crisis and wars including Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Some have known war firsthand, while others protested those wars.

Gen X:

  • Watched the rise of the word ‘alternative’ – applied to everything from people, music, clothes and more, the anti-drug campaign ‘Just Say No’, microwaves and the explosion of fast-food chains, aerobics and the fitness movement, cable TV and satellite.

  • Created innovative startups with the explicit aim of making the world a better place, for example, Elon Musk (Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity).

  • Lived during a floating dollar, financial deregulation, globalisation and contributed to relative economic prosperity and high living standards. However, the great property boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s has pushed many Gen X homebuyers deep into debt and the financial exposure of Gen X is more pronounced than previous generations.

  • Experienced being laid off, restructured, outsourced, reorganised and relocated possibly more than any other generation, acquiring many necessary skill sets for adaptability.

Gen X characteristics in the workplace

  • self-sufficient, results-oriented and hard-working with a tendency to be quiet achievers

  • entrepreneurial, educated and independent thinkers

  • value diversity, challenges, and responsibility

  • enjoy creative input and rescourceful 

  • embrace technology and social media

  • adaptable and readily accept change in the workplace

  • place a strong emphasis on family time and work-life balance – Gen X work to live rather than live to work

  • value constructive feedback

  • may appear sceptical but offer the pros and the cons to even the best of ideas

  • dislike being micromanaged, prefer hands-off management style

  • more willing to change jobs to get ahead than previous generations

  • ambitious and eager to learn new skills

  • strive to accomplish things on their own terms

  • thrive in casual, friendly, fun work environments and are accepting and inclusive of others

  • master of self-deprecation.

Always remember – not everyone in this generation will fall tidily into these traits as there are different types of Generation X amongst the larger group and everyone is an individual. However, this information can be used to acknowledge what’s gone before, learn from it, and resolve to shape the future into something better. 

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