Whatever became of Generation X?
In all the talk about juggling the values and needs of different age groups in the same workplace, the focus has been on cashed-up baby boomers requiring respect for having put in the hard yards, and tech-savvy millennials who want it all now lest they flit off to a better offer.
But sandwiched in between is another layer of workers: those born between 1965 and 1980. So-called Generation X.
The descriptor was popularised by Canadian writer Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel about disaffected youth,
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. These days, Coupland seems less convinced of his subject's exceptionalism:
"In as much as there is a Gen X, it's paying for school bills for their kids and nursing care for their parents. There's not much free time to be either pro or anti-establishment," he says in a BBC interview.
It suggests that the characteristics ascribed to particular generations are like shifting sands. Are demographic definitions mostly marketing spin?
'One of the worst things you can do is micro-manage a Gen X employee. They are used to working towards agreed goals with limited supervision'
– JULIE COGIN
Julie Cogin, a professor and director of AGSM@UNSW Business School, admits she set out to debunk the notion of generational differences when she applied rigour to what began as "hobby research".
"I conducted the study across five different countries and collected data over different years to see how changes emerged," Cogin says.
"I thought generation differences were explained by life cycle. As you acquired a mortgage and had children you would adopt the characteristics of the next generation, and as you reduced work and retired you would shift again. I was proved right in some ways, but also proved wrong in other ways."
And the key finding?
"There are distinct characteristics that belong to age groups, which don't change over time as their life cycle alters."
Forces that shape
So, who – or what – are Generation X?
"Before you can identify the characteristics, you should consider the influences on the generation. That includes everything from pop culture to political changes, financial unrest, family upbringing and more," Cogin says.
"Gen X were really the first to experience both parents working – and were often called the latch-key kids, getting themselves home from school and waiting until their parents came home.
"They've also seen their parents work very hard and face a number of challenges in the workplace, particularly in the 1980s and '90s with radical increases in redundancies, down-sizing and right-sizing," she adds.
"In many cases, they've perceived their parents to have been treated poorly by employers. So you'll find there's reduced levels of trust between corporations and Gen X. That's a really important influence on their lives."
Generation X have embraced the peripheral workforce, with contract-type arrangements, part-time roles, the gig economy – whereas for their baby-boomer parents, working was more about job security and loyalty to one employer.
"It's also important to note that economic circumstances have shaped the attributes of Generation X," notes Cogin.
"They grew up with a floating dollar, financial deregulation and globalisation. And they've suffered and experienced several economic downturns," she says.
"Even with halts on growth and income, Gen X have not altered spending patterns. They have very low saving rates and are not well prepared for retirement. More Gen Xers rent than previous generations and those that have home loans, have a higher prevalence of borrowing 100% of a house price with negative equity in their homes."
Adding to the challenges of living beyond their means is an increase in the average child-bearing age, with women in their 30s and even 40s having babies. It means that Gen X's children are younger – and need more attention – than for previous generations at this point in their lives.
The nitty gritty
If we can see where Gen X have come from, what should employers consider when hoping to engage, retain and harness their strengths?
"Gen X are very pragmatic and competent, and independence is important," Cogin says.
"They prefer to self-manage and be self-directed. One of the worst things you can do is micro-manage a Gen X employee. They are used to working towards agreed goals with limited supervision.
"And it's essential to create relationships that foster trust with Gen X, to emphasise accomplishments and results. They are problem-solvers and expect discretion and autonomy in doing their job."
According to Cogin's research, Gen X want access to their boss:
"They want to have a voice. They want to be heard – in a subtler way than younger people, who may be more demanding about this. Gen X like to get into the actual detail of the work and then prove themselves in that way. There's more substance to the work that they are doing."
'Project-based work is where they really thrive. They are collegial, good at building teams and involving others in work'
– JULIE COGIN
Gen Xers are used to changing jobs – typically, every three to five years. It doesn't create the concern it can cause for those who are older.
"So if you want to retain Gen Xers, you've got to keep the work interesting," Cogin says. "Project-based work is where they really thrive. They are collegial, good at building teams and involving others in work."
Everyone wants to be paid fairly, but for Gen Xers – sometimes living beyond their means and carrying a lot of debt – attractive remuneration and financial incentives are a necessity. And having younger children and older parents makes a work-life balance more pressing.
"If their kids don't need them, their parents do. Having flexible work practices and options for different work arrangements – a condensed work week, working from home, job share – are quite important to them as well," Cogin says.
Feeling your age
Gen Xers, mostly in their 40s and early 50s, are at the mid-career point where if they were going to step up to the C-suite, now would be the time to make a move. Cogin agrees that "the 40s are typically the time for career reflection, and the elevation".
"But this generation can expect to face some age-discrimination," she says.
"As they get to 50 – and some of them are already past 50 – and organisations have outsourced work to developing countries, and there has been automation of roles, use of artificial intelligence and so on, people may view Gen Xers as a lot older or out of touch with technology and automation.
"It's not all about having the opportunity to revitalise a career. They are facing a number of stereotypes associated with their age."
But there is a heartening fact about Gen X and age: They can expect to live 10 years longer than baby boomers.
"Their life expectancy is around 82. Whereas for a 50-year-old back in 1965, it was about 72," says Cogin.