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Generation X - Myth, Misery, Magic?

Cam Marston

Generation X - a nightmare to some, a Godsend to others. This group, loosely defined, is between the ages of 21 and 34 and represents about 34 million people. As the Matures enter retirement and the Baby Boomers prepare for it, the next generation of employees, employers, CEOs, police chiefs, congressmen, and US Presidents are getting ready to take the reins.

Many employers can't come to terms with this new generation of employee who currently represents 33% of the workforce. Employers say these employees have no loyalty to the job, no loyalty to their career, are brash, disrespectful, and constantly on the move. Employers complain of giving expensive job training and as soon as the "Xer" is profitable to the company, they quit. The reason: they're "unfulfilled." "That's inexcusable!" the employer cries. Is it really? Well, have a look at the other side of the coin.

Cam Marston
Cam Marston

I am a Generation Xer. I'm twenty-nine. When I first heard the descriptions of Generation X I balked.

"Not me," I said. "I don't belong here."

But I do belong. After doing a little research I realize I epitomize what this group is all about. And my generation has a lot to offer the workplace. Ultimately, we will change it. In the meantime, though, there will need to be some compromise from both sides.

Generation X was molded by the environment in which we grew up; an environment, consequently, that the Baby Boomers and Matures created. It was an environment that encouraged loyalty to the job versus attention to the family. It equated time spent at the desk as hard work. It rewarded twenty-five years of job performance with a gold watch. Promotions and raises were largely based on tenure. This was the work ethic my parents and my grandparents grew up in and it served them well.

Then the corporate layoffs began. I saw my friend's parents, who proudly spoke their employers name like it was a status symbol, shell-shocked when they were told they no longer had a job. They were dumbfounded and terrified now that they no longer had employment that would "take them home" to retirement. "What's going to happen? My job is all I know," they said. They were panicked.

Generation X is all about not letting that happen to us. We don't want quarterly stock earnings determining our employment. We won't be sold on the myth that success and loyalty to the company are integrally related.  

The key for a Generation X employee is this: For a Generation Xer, a desirable workplace is determined by the skills that will be developed while working there. If, for whatever reason, we stop working at one company we want skill sets that will make us immediately employable elsewhere; we build equity in our knowledge and capabilities.

What does this mean? It means that Generation X employees want to be constantly learning. It means that Generation X employees want challenges, opportunities, interesting tasks, decision making capabilities, and to be kept "in the loop" on why and how company decisions are made. To train an Xer and then give them an uneventful and repetitive McJob is going to give you, the employer, high job turnover. I heard of a Kinko's employee in a different city who, during a conversation with a customer, said "If I'm not challenged; if I'm not learning, I'm outta here." That is the case. There are scores of examples to prove it.

Does this mean that the employer must change the entire workplace for this one segment of employee? Certainly not. Keep in mind that the employers (managers, supervisors, business owners, etc.) have the keys to our future. They still grant the promotions, award the bonuses, sell us the business, and generally, have a large influence on our success. They are the ones we must work through to get where we want to go. Generation X is very ambitious. We were weaned on a level of success that many of our grandparents never knew. We got familiar with having lots of presents under the Christmas tree due to the affluence of our parents. We were brought up liking toys and having lots of them compared to our parents and our grandparents. It's now what we expect. But toys (once Lego's, now cell phones, cars, homes, etc.) take money, money comes with success, and much of the time our success is determined by our superiors. So compromise is necessary for both parties to succeed.

Xers are not demons; we don't go to work every day just to make our employer's job hard. We entered the workforce to succeed but our definition of success is dramatically different from those that manage us. Our success is a measurement of overall job capability and versatility, not time on the job. Our success is measured in independence and self-reliance, not parasitic dependence. Our success is about getting to where we want to go the way we want to do it, not following a mandated definition of success and then being incentivized to "stay in line."

The companies that have identified the unique skills the Generation X workforce possesses do everything they can to keep them. Their energy level, desire to learn, technology skills, and enthusiasm have transformed the workplace into something powerful it never has been before. These companies are quickly moving forward. The employers that are complaining are still trying to do things the old way, the way they were taught, and they are going to have a difficult time staffing their business.


Cam Marston has given hundreds of presentations worldwide on Generation X and the up and coming Generation Y. He has studied the Baby Boomers, Veterans and the Silent Generation. Today he instructs audiences on what makes each generation unique, why they are the way they are, and how to make the most of those intrinsic characteristics.
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