Generation X: Another Look

Generation X: Another Look

Much has been written about the characteristics of members of the workplace generations that make up our workforce.

  • The Radio Generation born before 1945 and now mostly retired
  • The Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1964 numbering some 75 million or 45% of the workforce, many of whom are beginning to retire now at a rate of three million per year
  • Generation X born between 1964 and 1977 with 45 million members or about 22% of the workforce
  • Generation Y (also called Millennials or Echo Boomers) born after 1977 with 76 million of workforce age.

While I do not agree that we can firmly attach characteristics to all the members of one of these generations, I will concede that there are some central tendencies that have statistical significance.  These may have resulted from events that were occurring during the members’ formative years.

For example, Gen-Xers were “latch-key” kids either with both parents working or raised in single-parent homes3.  They grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union, the outbreak of AIDS and the commercialization of subcultures on MTV.  While these events impacted different people in different ways, on average, Gen-Xers became well educated, technology literate and tend to be highly independent, often choosing to work alone rather than in groups.  They have a strong work ethic while seeking balance with family and lifestyle.  This leads to the desire for workplace flexibility1.  Furthermore, “they represent the largest group of entrepreneurs in history.”1

Now in the 30’s and 40’s, Gen-Xers represent the “bench strength” of management.

They are approaching their prime earning years and are in a position to accept leadership roles.

Now the reader will note that with 75 million Boomers heading towards retirement and only 45 million Gen-Xers coming along behind, there is a deficit of 30 million that must be overcome.  As the economy continues to improve, albeit slowly, Gen-Xers will have the opportunity to become increasingly mobile as new employment opportunities become available to them.

This may be good news for Gen-Xers, placing them in high demand.  But this should be of significant concern to business owners and CEOs who need to retain the skills, talents and experience of these employees.

Additionally, surveys support the notion that many Gen-Xers are seeking new challenges.  A 2011 survey from the Center for Talent Innovation showed that 37% of Gen-Xers said they were looking to leave their current employer within three years2.  Another study by the U.S. Department of Labor found the “quit rate” of this group, which measures the number of people that voluntarily leave, is now the highest since the beginning of the 2008 recession2. While still another study suggests the one in five Gen-Xers are preparing to leave their current jobs3.

So what can business owners and CEOs do to counter these trends?  Below are some suggestions gleaned from the three reference articles listed at the end of this blog.

  1. Because Gen-Xers on average tend to be creative, productive and independent, give them a clearly defined task and let them work on it with little oversight1.  Don’t dictate to them, but allow them to brainstorm options with you. Seek their feedback on the right course of action to take3 – take a collaborative approach with them.
  2. When they show they are ready, give Gen-Xers a chance to be in charge by having them head a high visibility project to spot light their abilities2.
  3. Encourage their entrepreneurial instincts when possible by letting them “test their wings” in a company-sponsored new venture2.
  4. Offer the flexibility that Gen-Xers desire to help them achieve the work-life balance they seek2.  They are highly proficient with e-mail, SMS messaging (texting), Skype calling, blogs, forums and virtual workrooms.  These tools allow them to be productive without always having a physical presence in the office to collaborate, solve problems or create products and services1.
  5. Offer variety through opportunities to learn new skills, cross train, work on projects in other departments and continuing education3.
  6. Take the initiative as well as encourage your senior managers to mentor the best and brightest of your Gen-Xers. Show them a route for them to reach a top job when it’s time2.
  7. When teams are necessary to perform a project, encourage the members to self-manage3.  You want your Gen-Xers to stay with you because of their expertise, so let them put that expertise to work in an environment of open communication and trust, where open debate is encouraged and opposing opinions are discussed in a critical yet caring way.
  8. Both Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers seek frequent feedback3.  So create an environment of rapid feedback, giving praise where deserved and corrective suggestion when warranted.

Gen-Xers, for the reasons discussed here, are and will be leaving big corporations to join smaller companies, even if it means a pay cut. This should be good news for those smaller companies who seek to attract new talent and are Gen-X friendly.


1 “Understanding Generation X and Y Employees” by Tim Shaver, Vistage Chair

2 “4 Ways to Retain Gen Xers”, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, HBR Blog Network

3 “Create a Gen-X Friendly Workplace to Retain Key Talent” by Deanne DeMarco,