If there’s one word that describes Generation X, it is “rupture”.
In my previous post, I’ve invited you to an empathic journey through the lives of this divided, paradoxical and rather unfortunate generation. Today we’ll further dive into the roots of their values and behaviours.
As you might recall, Boomers grew up in a world in which the common speech was “stability leads to progress” and the reality they’ve lived in was precisely this one. Yers, on the other hand, were born after the first ruptures in long-established institutions and received a different speech from their elders and media: one that stated “the world is chaos”. They’ve internalized this speech and adapted their behaviour to a world that was indeed in chaos.
Despite the fact those two worldviews are very different, they’re coherent. Generation X (the cohort born between 1965 and 1977) did not have this luxury. The speech they’ve heard from previous generations was that “stability leads to progress” but what they’ve encountered was “a world in chaos”: a world of unprecedented crisis, Aids and Chernobyl.
They’ve heard “family is sacred”, yet they’d be the first generation of “latchkey kids” to arrive from school to empty homes.
They’ve heard “a good education will land you a good job”, yet they’d be the first generation to experience massive unemployment of young graduates.
They’ve heard “pay your dues”, yet they’d be the ones to witness and suffer the first major layoffs, as the Oil Crisis hit the world.
Under this light it is not surprising to observe that the most common traits of this generation are scepticism, self-reliance, pragmatism and realism (one that is even more visible in comparison to the other two generations of idealists).
Far from reaching the homogeneity of the other two generations, Xers are described in terms of the myriad of diverging reactions to the incoherence of their time. In this case, the determining factors for a clear X-ray of Generation X are even more dependent on age (early Xers tend to behave more like Boomers and late Xers more like Yers), geography and local events (their formative years varying dramatically from region to region) and individual personality (more specifically in the optimism-pessimism spectrum).
In the business world, Xers can also be roughly divided between the “resigned” who play it safe waiting for their turn and the “rebels” who take the initiative to break traditional values.
The “resigned” are the ones who have often chosen careers of expertise and have climbed the corporate ladder as far as the “Boomers’ old boys” politics would allow. As they approach midlife and contemplate next steps in their careers, they grow increasingly frustrated with the Boomers refusal to retire and ubiquitous presence. Moreover, due to Yers unashamed ventures outside the chain of command and the parent-child transfer/counter-transfer between Boomers and their N-2 Yer employees, these Xers perceive a (real) threat of being short-circuited in future promotions. The result is a work environment embedded in the “zero-sum game” proper of Boomer corporate culture; a workplace in a clear generational divide, filled by anger and resentments.
The “rebels” are the ones who have understood the changes in corporate loyalty and have opted out for careers with better work-life balance. They’ve enhanced their survival skills acquired over the years and used it to design their careers in a pragmatic, “what if?”, entrepreneurial way. They’ve replaced the “pay your dues” mantra for “be a leader”.
Though we tend to often praise Yers for their demands on severe changes in work relations, it’s thanks to those Xers that we’ve seen over the last decades a rise in soft-skills training programs and new leadership paradigms. They’re the precursors of a movement that wouldn’t be possible without their valuable contribution, the same way Generation Y has a vital role in creating conditions for Generation Z to flourish (we’ll go over this subject on another occasion). In my next post I’ll share with you the 5 main leadership skills these Xers can teach future generations and why we’re in desperate need of them today.
The main organizational challenge of the next decade will certainly be the transformation of the generational divide currently present in many organizations into a true intergenerational collaboration. The success of this venture will guarantee the survival of our businesses and the adaptation to a changing and unpredictable world (in which an outdated management model solidified by the Baby Boomers no longer has its place).
As long as fear for the future dominates the relations we have with Generation X, this venture will fail. Also, as long as Xers hold a simple “trainer” role for the future generations (as opposed to coach and mentor), this venture will fail.
It is only when the dreams of the idealistic and young Generation Y meet the pragmatic leadership of Generation X that true change will occur.
Which other terms and values would you use to describe Generation X?