Your Business’s Secret Weapon: Generation X

Gen X Characteristics in the Workplace

There has been an abundance of smart articles and blog posts in recent years on millennials in the workforce and how employers can meet this generation’s needs in order to increase retention. There have also been several corresponding articles on how best to leverage the experience and wisdom of near-retirement baby boomers, and a burgeoning number of articles on the next generation in the workforce, Generation Z.

The middle child of generations—Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980—has been often ignored in these discussions. In fact, the Huffington Post describes Generation X as the Jan Brady of generations (and if you don’t know who Jan Brady is, you’re probably not a Gen Xer).

Research shows that at work, compared to their Baby Boomer and millennial counterparts, Gen Xers are more often passed up for promotions, even though they frequently have more experience and more direct reports than millennial managers have.

Some researchers believe that Gen X women, in particular, face career challenges due to balancing the conflicting demands of work and family, and may be getting squeezed out of the workforce.

Why Generation X is Crucial to the Future of Work

Neglecting the needs of Generation X in the workplace, however, can be a huge mistake for employers. The truth is, Generation X:

  • Makes up over one third of the workforce in Canada and holds the majority of its leadership roles
  • Champions adoption of new technology and promotes innovation in the workplace
  • Is adept at communicating, showing empathy, and managing diversity
  • Displays higher company loyalty than its millennial counterpart
  • Will continue to be in the workforce for a long time (the oldest Gen Xers are at least 10 years from retirement; the youngest have another 30 years to go)

Generation X in the workplace acts as a fulcrum, managing up to meet the needs of baby boomer bosses, and managing down to develop brilliant millennials (or the reverse, in some cases, reporting to millennial bosses while developing baby boomers through late-stage career changes or skill development). This can be exhausting work.

In fact, while Gen Xers tend to have higher company loyalty than millennials, a Gen X retention crisis may be imminent, as employers invest more time and resources in other generations. As generational researcher, Mary Donohue, warns companies:

“Gen X possesses your intellectual capital. If you don’t look after Gen X, and this capital is depleted, your organization will find it tough to recover. You’ll be left with an uninspired workforce and a customer base that will erode.”

On the other hand, companies that focus on retaining Generation X will reap benefits. Donohue’s data indicates that organizations who pay attention to the Gen X-millennial relationship, for example, will help both generations, dropping turnover by 50% and increasing productivity by 11%.

Those companies that understand the value in Gen Xers can ensure they keep some of their most valuable, productive employees. Doing so requires seeing some of Generation X’s unique needs and experiences.

The Secret of My Success: Generation X is Independent

Generation X was the first generation to grow up under cultural expectations that women have lifelong careers (PMI). As a result, members of this generation, more than any before them, were likely to spend their childhoods shuffling between school and daycare or functioning as “latchkey kids” (at home for part of the day without adult supervision).

Donohue describes her own Gen X childhood:

My mom and her friend Ellen threw us in a station wagon (no seat belts), smoked cigarettes, and let us play outside unsupervised until the streetlights came on.”

As a result of this need to figure things out for themselves, Gen Xers tend to be independent, self-sufficient, resourceful, and hardworking. They are also resilient, having lived through more recessions than any other generation, and they may be unimpressed with authority, preferring to rely upon their own judgement and skills.

Appreciate & Use It

Because of their high degree of independence, Gen Xers are more likely to prefer a collaborative or delegative style of management, as well as flexibility in working hours and location. Employers who try to micro-manage Gen X employees will crush their independence and capacity for innovation, and solidify their lack of respect for authority. Gen Xers have been problem-solving and self-managing since childhood, and to expect otherwise is to underestimate and possibly alienate them.

Electric Dreams: Generation X is Tech Savvy

While millennials and Generation Z are more often considered the most tech-savvy of the working generations, Generation X was the first to grow up with digital technology, raised on video games and early PCs. As a result, Gen X leaders are just as likely as millennials to be adept at using technology at work (DDI).

Research by Nielsen reveals that Gen X is the most connected generation, using social media 40 minutes more each week than millennials and spending more time on every type of device.

Crucially, though, Generation X brings a broad perspective to technology. Old enough to remember pre-internet days, Generation X, once its initial love affair with digital tech subsided, began approaching technology more holistically. As author Rob Salkowitz explains, “We were discovering that there’s a big difference between some kid who can use AutoCAD like a wizard, and a person who, whatever their technology skills, under­stands design, spatial volume, and proportion” (American Society on Aging).

Appreciate & Use It

Savvy employers can avoid stereotypes in hiring and promotion. While a millennial might seem like a great fit for a role in digital tech, objective data and hiring assessments can help employers avoid generational bias and keep from overlooking very qualified Gen Xers. (The reverse is also true: do not assume that all millennials are tech savvy or overlook their crucial soft skills.)

Additionally, while many organizations look to millennials to lead projects to promote innovation, Gen Xers may thrive when given the opportunity to experiment. As well, their sense of the need for concrete purpose behind innovation and technology, their ability to collaborate, and their capacity for empathy will bolster the chances of project success.

Back to School: Generation X Craves Learning

As experienced leaders and managers, Gen Xers crave opportunities for professional development and lifelong learning, especially from external mentors and trainers, to help them meet the challenges they face. In fact, 67% of Gen Xers would like more external coaching. While Gen Xers may have high levels of company loyalty, they will move on if they do not see opportunities for growth.

Appreciate & Use It

Employers who want to retain Gen Xers need to provide opportunities for development outside the workplace. They can also create situations where Gen Xers can be teachers and mentors to other employees.

To leverage the talents of Gen X leaders, employers can put them in charge of training projects or ask them to be early adopters of new technology in the workplace.

The benefit here is twofold: Gen Xers get a new challenge to help them develop and remain engaged, and the company gets the benefit of Generation X’s experience to foster growth.

Generational Diversity in the Workplace: Patterns, not Proscriptions

Employers should keep in mind that generational patterns really are just that—high-level patterns that may offer significant variation at the individual level. An organization may have some very tech-savvy baby boomers, for example, and some Gen Zers who are social media averse.

As well, there is some evidence to suggest that stages of life can be just as influential as particular cultural and economic factors in influencing a generation. That is, the millennials of tomorrow, as they move into the later stages of family life, may show similar characteristics to the Gen Xers of today.

The point is not for employers to overly focus on age, but not to ignore those of a particular generation or their potentially unique needs. Organizations can, in fact, leverage generational diversity in the workplace to promote sustainability and growth.

Investing in all Generations

Whatever generation employees are in, they all want the chance to grow and succeed in the workplace. Should employee upskilling be offered, taking advantage of training grants is a great way for employers to maximize training return.

Mentor Works has some upcoming training-themed webinars this year – make sure to register to learn which programs can offer financial support!

Register for A Canadian Government Funding Webinar

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