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Why Companies Can’t Ignore Gen X

By Melissa J. Anderson

Much of the information about generational conflict in the workplace revolves around smoothing out the differences between Baby Boomers and Millennial employees, often ignoring the talented, diverse, and highly adaptable middle child – Gen X.

According to a recent report from the Center for Work Life Policy, The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33- to 46-Year-Old Generation, the generation of individuals between the ages of 33 and 46 are hard at work, highly educated, and highly ambitious.

At the same time, the report says, Gen Xers are frustrated – the Baby Boomers ahead won’t seem to retire and the horde of ambitious Millennials behind them are eager to push them out of the way. In fact, according to the study, 41% of Gen Xers were not satisfied with their rate of advancement, and roughly half (49%) said they felt their career was stalled.

Having survived three recessions since entering the workforce, and many deeply in debt, one would assume that this generation of workers was living up to its characteristic sullenness. But, according to a new report out of the University of Michigan, Gen X’s gloominess faded away in the 90s. Today, this generation is happy.

That gives employers a big reason to take notice – rather than focusing career development and advancement initiatives solely on its youngest workers, they need to pay attention to Gen X employees too. Or else they will happily take their education, experience, drive, and adaptability to another company that will better support their needs.

Characterizing Gen X

According to the CWLP, the impact of having to survive three recessions during their relatively short time in the workforce has shaped the way Gen X employees view their careers. For example, the X-Factor survey showed that nearly a third of Gen X is working “extreme” schedules – more than 60 hours per week. And, in fact, their time spent working is increasing. In a recent Huffington Post interview, CWLP Founder and President Sylvia Ann Hewlett, explained:

“What happened to work is that it has become much more extreme: We find that 28 percent of Gen Xers are working 10 hours more a week than they were 5 years ago. That’s in part because of the Great Recession. Everyone is doing more with less. Everyone’s running a little scared. Unemployment is 9 percent. You really fear for your job.”

Additionally, the CWLP pointed out:

“Xers are masters at mastering change—a skill set critical in every company today. They have been laid off, restructured, outsourced, reorganized and relocated more than any other generation in modern times—yet they are hugely hard-working and ambitious, eager to amplify their talents by learning new skills and garnering new experiences.”

As the global workplace grows increasingly complex and mutable, companies should look to people who are good at managing change to take on leadership.

Satisfied Gen X

Recently the University of Michigan’s Jon D. Miller released a report on Gen X entitled, “Active, Balanced, and Happy: These young Americans are not bowling alone” [PDF]. The longitudinal study surveyed almost 4000 individuals between 1987 and 2010. The results of Miller’s study are similar to those of the CWLP’s. For example, Generation X individuals “were more likely to be employed and were working and commuting significantly more hours per week” than those in other generations.

On the other hand, the data on job satisfaction does not match the CWLP’s. According to Miller:

“Two-thirds of Generation X young adults are satisfied with their current job. In 2010, each participant was asked to rate how satisfied they were with their current job on a zero-to-10 scale, with zero representing the highest level of dissatisfaction and 10 representing the highest level of satisfaction. The mean level of job satisfaction was 7.0 and the median (middle score) was 7. Twenty-four percent of these workers rated their job at a 9 or 10 on the satisfaction scale and only 8% ranked their job satisfaction as three or lower.”

This study showed that Gen X employees are by and large quite satisfied with their jobs – and unlike the CWLP’s strident warnings that this generation of employees are growing restless and disloyal, they seem to be quite pleased with their current work situation. This is also good news for employers – while they will have to contend with job-hopping Millennials, Gen X will have stored the experience and knowledge it takes to lead companies moving forward.

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