In 1990, Time magazine described the twenty-something generation as possessing “only a hazy sense of their own identity but a monumental preoccupation with all the problems the preceding generation will leave for them to fix,” and, “hardly recognized as a social force or even noticed much at all.”
Fast forward 22 years and hints of that reputation are still floating around the workplace, mostly in the form of two major categories:
Leave Me Alone
Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychiatrist who ran in the same social circle as Sigmund Freud, was one of the first to theorize that birth order influences personality. In the case of Generation X, they’re textbook middle children, sandwiched between two of the largest generations in history — Baby Boomers and Millennials. With such huge shadows cast on either side, their relative smallness has always been thought of as the crux of their identity issues. This often translates to preferring to work alone, a deep disdain for being micromanaged and, as a result, a self-imposed feeling of responsibility overload.
In a world that is increasingly social and collaborative, this behavior can come off to other generations as holier-than-thou, cynical, and counterproductive.
Where’s the Loyalty?
Watching parents and grandparents get kicked to the curb by large corporations can really do a number on a kid. Today, Xers deal with coming of age in such a volatile corporate climate by being committed to their profession rather than their company. For them, real job security lies in accumulating and developing the knowledge and skills required to advance to their next career. They have no qualms with moving on, and often do every couple of years, sucking up experience like a vacuum.
For everyone else, this lack of commitment leads to a lack of confidence.
As we’ve seen and will continue to see in this series, difficult elements of a generation’s past are often responsible for their strongest present-day capabilities. X is no exception. After growing up watching disappointment after disappointment, they sold the idealism their parents coveted and bought cold, hard realism. The resulting pragmatic approach to the workplace is one that isn’t commonly seen in any other generation, and as difficult as it can be for some to get used to, at its best it helps keep projects (and people) on Earth.
By growing up between the old and new ways of operating, Generation X is the most capable of changing the corporate template without blowing a major gasket. They apply the necessary toughness that traditional business folks value while simultaneously protecting the interests of the newer kids.
And so it turns out Time was wrong. There is identity in this generation, and it’s smack in the middle of everything. While their lone wolf-ness and tendency to show up out of the blue with a resignation notice can be seriously off-putting, others would do well to recognize that this generation sees companies as places to grow, not grow old. And during that growing time, they’re helping in a very critical way. That acknowledgement and sensitivity to their appreciation for balance will help move businesses move forward at a pace that everyone’s comfortable with.