Gen X in the workplace: Stuck in the middle
As we all know, Generation X is stuck in the middle of the two largest generations in history (the baby boomers and the millennials). At the "Rally to Restore Sanity" this past weekend, Jon Stewart used the example of cars merging into the Lincoln Tunnel as proof that people make compromises every day in order to get things done. He highlighted a "you go, and then I go" philosophy that enables us to navigate through our lives. Just as with Stewart's congested tunnel, the modern workplace is jammed with three generations cramming to move forward, but sometimes it feels like there's simply too much in the way of our meager little Xer generation to merge.
1. X Sandwich
A few weeks ago a column out of Richmond, VA, captured the generational debate: youngsters want the ol' fogeys out of the way, while the boomers want to keep on working, taking offense at the mention of yielding to their children. Between these perspectives are Gen-Xers. Boomers are staying put--either exercising their own sense of entitlement by indifferently coasting in tenured and senior positions without fears of being fired, or legitimately hustling through the onset of their golden years to squirrel away enough cash to retire. While the Government Accountability Office reported in 2006 the expectation that many boomers would work beyond the retirement age, few could have anticipated that scores of boomers would face the end of their careers without enough money to exit.
On the flip side, millennials seem impatient to advance up the corporate ladder, occasionally being slammed for their own sense of entitlement. As both groups jockey for position, Gen-Xers are left to alternately fend off overeager newbies and patiently wait to earn a rare opening at the top. Either way it's a battlefield, and no-man's land is an uncomfortable place to be.
2. Latchkey managers
Many Gen-Xers grew up as latchkey kids, having to care for themselves and in some cases their parents and siblings. Similarly, some Gen-Xers have surpassed their boomer counterparts in the corporate hierarchy, finding themselves in an equally awkward position and asking: "How can I manage someone who is ten to twenty years older than I am?"
In Managing the Older Worker, authors Cappelli and Novelli rightly point out that Gen-Xers' perceptions of older workers are part of the problem, as we might wrongly assume that they are less than adequate workers simply because we have advanced past them. But boomers play a part too, sometimes resisting the direction of a junior boss solely because of age or shutting down to become retired-on-the-job, collecting a paycheck by doing the bare minimum. At the same time, Gen-X managers are showing millennials the ropes, while often finding that this younger set values the end product more than they value the time they spend at the office and that they may not expect to sacrifice their highly prized work/home-life balance in order to advance their career.
3. Loyalty vs. growth
Gen-Xers have traditionally been slammed for their lack of loyalty. For one, many in the Gen-X cohort grew up watching adults in our lives getting kicked to the curb by large corporations, a prescient warning (further bolstered by recent layoffs) of what can happen when loyalty is one-sided. To further confound the loyalty issue, boomers make up 40 percent of the US's 140 million person workforce, and they're not leaving anytime soon.
As a result, many Gen-Xers have been in the same position for quite a while, butting up against the Gray Ceiling, a stagnating phenomenon that leaves us wondering how to grow when advancement isn't coming soon. To boot, millenials aren't helping our cause. Some suggest that they're more loyal to employers than their parents or Gen-X have been. Either way, in carving out an advancing career path, Gen-Xers have to get creative and hustle for temporary projects, new assignments, opportunities at remote locations and, yes, even opportunities at new companies.
4. Overcoming the trust deficit
In 1988 Peter Drucker, groundbreaking management scholar, wrote, "The final requirement of effective leadership is to earn trust. Otherwise there won't be any followers--and the only definition of a leader is someone who has followers." For our fellow Gen-Xers, trust and the workplace don't really go hand in hand. We've come of age in a volatile corporate climate, watching some of the largest corporate scandals and takedowns in American history. According to a Maritz Poll released earlier this year, "Employees' trust toward their workplace has taken a severe hit, with employees across all industry segments citing a lack of trust in not only senior leaders, but direct managers and co-workers as well."
Similarly, the IRS reports that prosecution recommendations regarding corporate fraud have increased each of the past three years, and a recent Gallup poll shows that only 11 percent of respondents have a Great Deal or Quite A Lot of confidence in big business. In fact, according to the 2010 Trust Index, the United States as a whole ranks 19th in the world in trust, falling behind Iraq, China and Saudi Arabia. This lack of trust makes for a bewildering work environment. As a generation, we don't trust the people around us; and perhaps there's good reason not too. But as Drucker suggests, regardless of whether we're following or leading, we have to figure out ways to move past mistrust.
5. Tech comfort zone
Once again, Gen-Xers find ourselves in the middle of a befuddling reality. As we work to navigate our careers, we notice the divide between our upbringing and those of the baby boomers and millennials. We all know how comfy these newbies are with gadgets. Growing up with video-game systems, cell phones, computers and the Internet, they're the most eager generation to embrace technology and are setting the bar for its use. Even the American Library Association (ALA) has weighed in, contrasting their preference for Google and instant messaging with the baby boomers' interest in Business Week and USA Today. (Sadly, the ALA doesn't give Gen-Xers any love, simply stating they "don't read as much," "prefer fewer words" and look to "visual stimulation." See what an upbringing without J. K. Rowling and the dawn of commercialized cable television will do!)
The downside to the youngsters' tech savvy, according to The 2009 National Business Ethics Survey, is that they're more likely to be okay with writing negatively online about their companies, as well as with holding onto confidential documents. In a world where information is fast and loose, they don't discriminate.
Given that baby boomers tend to play things a little closer to the vest, Gen-Xers are best positioned to bridge both worlds. Gen-Xers understand how the boomers can be so perplexed by the new crop of workers, always connected to their mobile devices and social networks. We also get the millennials' confusion at the workaholic tendencies of their boomer counterparts, who sometimes don't seem to have lives outside of the office.
Extending Stewart's analogy, the Gen-X fate may be for us to become the all-important traffic cops, assuming responsibility for brokering between the generations on either side of us to keep this traffic moving along. The only question left is, what's our whistle?
Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl
November 1, 2010; 3:02 PM ET
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