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Knowing Your Workers: Generation X

Generation X

Last time we discussed the traits of Baby Boomers in the workplace, including what motivates them and what kinds of rewards they value. Because so many Boomers are in management positions now, they are more likely to struggle to understand their Millennial workers, but an entire generation separates them: Generation X.

Believe it or not, the oldest members of the generation that follows the Baby Boomers are now in their fifties – which means Xers are your seasoned workers and your current or upcoming managers. In fact, while Generation X is smaller in numbers, they make up 68% of Inc. 500 CEOs. What makes them different from the generation that came before them? There are a number of things.

First of all, Generation X grew up in a time of real flux. The oldest Gen Xers were born in 1965 and the youngest in 1980. These were years of significant social change for society and the family. While the Boomers had families and communities that remained together, stable, connected, and largely unchanging during their formative years, Generation X was the first to experience divorce as a normative experience. They were the latch-key kids of the 1970s and 80s, the ones who learned how to do for themselves because no one was at home after school. While the Boomers rebelled against authority in their lives which they viewed as stodgy or behind the times, Generation X longed for structure and direction because they didn’t have as much experience with it – many of them were left on their own to figure out life’s lessons.

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This generation had more financial stress as adults as well. They graduated from college just in time to experience the contracting of the U.S. economy. The manufacturing jobs Boomers took for granted were not there for them. Instead there were the boom years in the 1990s followed by the eventual economic meltdown of 2008, during which Generation X lost 45% of its wealth. This was not a generation that had been taught to scrimp and save as children, and credit card companies courted them as soon as they hit adulthood. With the changing of the American work scene, many of them have never known true job security.

Additionally, because of the age bracket they fall into presently, many Gen Xers have children and parents to care for. Generation X attained the hallmarks of adulthood – employment, marriage, children, and homeownership – later than Boomers did, so despite their age, many of the have young children. They lost twice as much of their net worth in the Great Recession, which adds to their personal stress.

As a result of the above, Generation X workers tend to be independent and entrepreneurial. They dislike being micromanaged, and they are focused on results and not process. They are the ultimate pragmatists. Boomers may “question authority,” but Gen Xers question doing things according to a traditional process if there is another way of accomplishing a task that is quicker, easier, or cheaper.

Generation X tends to be “hands off” as managers as well, and they avoid meetings when possible. Men and women of this generation have worked and juggled family and parenthood from the beginning, so they view flexible hours as very desirable. Boomers will put in more time or overtime to get ahead, but Gen Xers don’t believe they will get ahead using that strategy, so they put in their required hours and go home. For this generation having the time to do what they want is the greatest reward and motivator.

Unlike the Millennials, Generation X was not raised getting participation trophies or praise for ordinary tasks, so they don’t expect it from their managers and they don’t give it out easily either. Both the Boomers and the Millennials believe work should be meaningful and fulfilling in some way: a vocation. In contrast, Gen X views work as something difficult to accomplish and get out of the way. They work to make money to pay the bills.

Obviously, the differences between how the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials view being at work, managing or being managed by others, and doing work differ greatly and will have an impact on how they view each other’s commitment to the job and as employees. However, a little understanding of how life has molded and shaped these generations will go a long way to helping them negotiate what must be done and how they should do it together.