When it comes to progressive work style movements gaining consensus in corporate America — such as flexible scheduling and work-life balance — Charlotte Hawthorne doesn’t quite understand why millennials, or Generation Y, get all the credit.
Hawthorne, the manager of global diversity and inclusion for pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co., said that Gen Y’s demand for added flexibility at work has played a role in companies’ increased adoption of such practices — including those at Eli Lilly — but the flexibility mantra actually originated with a different generation, one that she falls into: Generation X.
“Millennials get some noise around flexibility, being able to work anywhere, anytime,” she said, “but that was a significant mantra of Generation X, who probably really forged the way on work-life balance programs.”
Whichever generation should get credit, Hawthorne’s view is expressed by many in her age group.
As Gen Y storms the workforce with its need to collaborate and integrate work and life with mobile and social technologies, and baby boomers stalled in their retirement hopes thanks to the recession still occupy the executive ranks, it’s easy to forget Gen X, defined roughly as those born between 1960 and 1980.
Many organizations find themselves composed of employees from four different generations. But most of the buzz goes to Gen Y, a generation projected to make up half the workforce by 2020, and boomers, the biggest generation in history. The silent generation, also known as the traditionalists, also remains in the labor force — albeit to a much lesser extent.
Neil Howe, a generational historian and president and co-founder of consulting company LifeCourse Associates, said Gen X falls into what he terms a “recessive generation.” “Generation X has always been a little bit underappreciated relative to boomers and millennials,” he said.
Howe said more dominant generations typically coincide with a great social movement or cultural awakening, like the baby boomers, for whom counterculture and the civil rights movement during the 1960s acted as defining moments during their formative years. Those historical movements, paired with the generation’s size, make it hard to ignore.
Likewise, Gen Y’s are coming of age amid revolutionary changes in communication and technology. As a result, everything they do has become a subject of intense examination and discussion, especially their workplace behaviors.
But many Gen Xers are now in their 40s and 50s, and they’re starting to run the show, which makes them increasingly difficult to ignore. Managers, supervisors and executives and CEOs of some of the largest, most valuable companies in the world today are Gen X. Look no further than Barack Obama, the United States’ first Gen X president.
The Skeptical Generation
To understand the kind of managers and leaders members of Gen X are likely to be, it’s important to take a step back and revisit the generation’s defining moments and look at the events that shaped its members during their more formative years — typically between ages 11 and 13, said Tamara Erickson, author of “What’s Next, Gen X?” and a generational expert.
“Gen Xers grew up at a time when the fundamental conclusion they drew is, you can’t trust institutions,” Erickson said. For instance, Gen X came of age as corporations, up to that point the purveyors of long-term job stability, laid people off at a massive clip.
The institution of marriage crumbled in front of Gen X, as divorce rates hit new highs, Erickson said. This instilled a strong sense of independence in Gen X; as kids in single-parent homes, they became accustomed to letting themselves in after school and taking care of their homework and chores — unlike, for instance, Gen Y, the generation of “helicopter parents” and gold stars.
Gen X also grew up at a time when the idea of the guarantee of Social Security checks at retirement began to be questioned, resulting in Gen X’s general distrust in the government. These events, Erickson said, helped shape perhaps the core characteristic of Gen X: skepticism.
“The basic idea behind Xers is, I’d better keep my options open,” Erickson said. “I’ve got to stay fast on my feet. I’ve got to be prepared if something bad were to happen. I’ve got to have multiple options.”
This skepticism in institutions, especially corporations, more or less turned Gen X off to the idea of a 30-year career with a single company and “putting all their eggs in one corporate basket and just climbing the corporate ladder,” Erickson said. “It’s scary for Gen Xers; it’s not something many of them want to do.”
Gen X’s skepticism also has shaped the kind of employees they’ve become. “You hire an Xer, you say, ‘I’m in charge, I know what I’m doing, follow me.’ The Xer may nod and smile, but they’re thinking, I’ll believe it when I see it, because there are just too many examples of incompetent management out there,” said Robert Wendover, managing director for the Center for Generational Studies.
For this reason, Gen X has always viewed each job as a more of a contract, Wendover said. “They’ve always looked at it as this is somewhere I happen to be, but if a better manager or a better opportunity comes along … or my spouse gets a better job, and I want to follow her to another city, they’re going to do that.”
As managers and leaders, Gen X tends to hold a more pragmatic view, maintaining caution in business decisions, staying open to new ideas — even if they go against their own — and keeping plenty of backup plans on the table.
“Gen Xers tend to be flexible and adaptable,” said Ignace Conic, vice president of diversity at financial services company Prudential Financial Inc.
Gen X is also more likely to favor family over work. Erickson said baby boomers are more likely to relocate if asked; to them it’s even viewed as a promotion. Gen X’s, on the other hand, are less likely to want to relocate, even with the bump up the corporate ladder. “It causes boomers to say, ‘Well gosh, what’s wrong with these guys? Why don’t they want to climb the corporate ladder like I did?’” she said.
Such a desire for work-life balance and family translates to an increased need for efficiency for Gen X at work, said Eli Lilly’s Hawthorne. For instance, baby boomers might insist that all meetings be held in person, whereas Gen X are much more likely to prefer to call in remotely, especially since they might be in transit from dropping kids off at school or a doctor’s appointment.
“I’d rather leave you a voice mail than talk to you,” Hawthorne said, “because that just takes longer.”
Such workplace and managerial characteristics translate to how Gen X interacts with Gen Y. One potential tension point is how the two prefer to work. Lindsey Pollak, a career expert and spokesperson for the Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., said Gen X prefers to work alone while Gen Y is much more interested in collaboration and group work.
“That’s a big friction point in the workplace of whether you want to close the door and get your work done or whether you want to have an all-hands-on meeting at a local pub,” said Pollak, herself a Gen X.
Another potential tension point in the supervisor-employee relationship of Gen X and Y is feedback, said Scott Zimmer, a speaker and generational expert at BridgeWorks, a generations consulting and training firm. Gen X is more likely to express the view of, “Alright, here’s what you need to do, now go over there and do it, and come back and show me what you’ve got,” said Zimmer, also a member of Gen X.“I think millennials might find that a little abrasive.” Instead, Gen Y prefers to ask a lot of questions throughout the process and receive plenty of feedback.
“Gen Xers for the most part see that as a little bit needy,” Zimmer said. “We don’t necessarily embrace right away a millennial’s need to feel validated and collaborate.”
One thing in common between the two generations, however, is technology. “Gen Xers love technology,” Pollak said. “They like to use new technologies.” Zimmer agreed, saying technology — or business ideas as viewed through a technology-based lens — is one thing Gen X are Y are more likely to find commonality in than with boomers.
Still, diversity practitioners need to choose the right route to create awareness of Gen X’s characteristics and preferences as leaders in the workplace. One way is to seek out research partnerships, said Valerie Grillo, chief diversity officer at American Express Co.
This is the route taken by American Express, a company whose workforce Grillo said is about half Gen X. The company partnered with think tank the Center for Talent Innovation to identify the defining characteristics of each generation in the workforce. The findings were included in graphics made available to employees and included in the launch of the company’s Generational Intelligence workshops.
Other practitioners take the view that generational issues, much like race or gender, not be segmented into buckets of training events. Rosanna Durruthy, chief diversity officer at health insurance firm Cigna, said in today’s environment, recognizing that diversity isn’t limited or exclusively defined by things such as race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation is important.
Sara Sperling, Facebook Inc.’s manager of diversity, said firms can spur employee awareness about Gen X and other generational characteristics by creating an environment that encourages openness and authenticity. As more Gen Xers make their way to executive and other leadership roles, having an authentic culture will naturally bring those characteristics to light, she said.
A more formalized way to create this environment is through mentoring, both traditional and reverse — where, for instance, Gen Y mentors a baby boomer on social media. But taking training out of the equation and letting the different generations interact with one another on a daily basis can help create more authentic learning and acceptance of generational characteristics and work styles.
“Those are the natural, organic learning opportunities that we can find to kind of do generations in the workplace learning without the traditional way,” Sperling said.