Generation X has always had a PR problem. Hint number one is having no name – the “X” symbolises the marker historically used in lieu of a signature by those who can’t read or write. Given that Generation X is the most educated cohort in America, someone probably should have put up a bit of a fight.
But Xers, also known as the “slacker” generation, were thought to have no real cause, no strong belief system or other unifying identity. And so, like someone who can’t sign their name, their presence has been noted in only the most limited ways. Some of them argue that they’re not muted, so much as outnumbered — first by Baby Boomers, who have all the power, and then by Millennials, who have all the attention. (Notably, Generation X has all the cynicism.) But increasingly, they are in demand, as companies realise they need to recruit and retain Gen X.
For one, Baby Boomers are retiring, and that huge generation is leaving open more spots than Gen X can fill. But lest you consider X a nameless stopgap until a Millennial texts/tweets/IMs you back, there are a lot of reasons X deserve a better name. Or some name, anyway.
Why you (still) need to recruit and retain Gen X.:
They can speak for the masses. Generation X has long been credited as the group able to speak Boomer and Millennial. They came of age in the late 1990s and entered the workforce along with email and the Internet. They were the first generation to do their homework on a computer and email their friends. But they are not digital natives. And that can be useful. Born between 1964 and 1982, they used rotary phones, fax machines, VCRs and tape cassettes and understand the Boomer era reference points of communication and entertainment.
At the same time, they were only in their twenties and thirties at the turn of the 21st century, which means they’ve spent half their lives on this side of the digital era. You’re more likely to find a Baby Boomer who can’t handle social media, and a Gen Z who can’t use a paper map, than you are to find a Gen Xer who can’t do both. As a result, they’re comfortable not only with the instruments of each age, but the generations that are more closely associated with them. They can make comparisons and analogies, tailored to any audience, and relate a concept to something more familiar to their age cohort.
They’re try-lingual. While they are associated with a low key, less ambitious, loner personality, they were a critical part of the early innovators and adopters of the Internet. They drove a large part of the trial and error period of the dot com boom — and bust. The slacker identity misrepresents a more flexible, less personally invested attitude that produces a resilience and persistence. Unlike Boomers, monetary success is not as closely tied to their personal happiness. Unlike Millennials, failure is less traumatising. And they’ll not only try new things, they’ll try the old way, too.
Like many middle child stereotypes, they tend to be less of an attention seeker and more of a peacekeeper. Growing up in a more traditional hierarchial work culture means they are less likely to question every decision made by someone older. Because they reflect and adapt to the larger generations one either side of them, they can compromise between the two as opposed to bring a third strong opinion. If your Millennials want to move everything to Slack, and your Boomers want a weekly in-person meeting, your Gen X group will do either. Or both. If they’re in charge – maybe a videoconference uploaded to Slack. Whatever. Gen X is very results-oriented, but very method-neutral, perhaps because they are least likely to be intimidated by the new or frustrated by the old. They are least likely to think their generation is unique, freeing up their egos, to try others’ ideas.
What X wants (besides a real name). Companies who want to recruit and retain Gen X employees need to understand that the most attractive perks aren’t at work. What they want is time. Generation X is now middle-aged. They’ve got jobs, partners, still young kids and already old parents. Some have college debt of their own or a fund for their kids. Or both. Flexible schedules, or telecommuting, or a generous vacation policy, or really anything that helps them have more time to manage their lives is paramount. They’re least likely to be swayed by more money or bigger titles. They were both the early beneficiaries of working women (all that extra money meant better schools and college degrees) and the collateral damage (divorce rates and two working parents meant these latch key kids spent a lot more time alone). That 1980s ambitious, wealth-driven culture defined them – sure, they can quote Wall Street. But they remember the end.
Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.