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Generation Work

Why can’t Generation X get ahead at work?

About the author

Ronald is a freelance writer and editor and the author of eight books, including his latest, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Previously, Ronald had a long career as an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

If Gen X workers are overlooked, they may just walk away. (Stockbyte)

If GenX workers are overlooked, they may just walk away. (Stockbyte)

Lauren Leader-Chivée knew it would probably take years to reach a senior position at her employer Credit Suisse — or at any major company for that matter.

She wasn’t sure she wanted to wait. So as her 30th birthday approached, Leader-Chivée jumped ship and joined other Generation X refugees from big corporations at the outsourcing firm OfficeTiger. She became OfficeTiger’s human-resources leader, working extensively in India and travelling the world.

“When I have chosen to go with smaller employers, it’s because I knew I would get to lead and assume more responsibility,” said 37-year-old Leader-Chivée, who is now senior vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation, a research organization, as well as a partner at the consultancy Hewlett Chivée Partners.  

Increasingly, she sees other Gen Xers following her path — or at least wishing they could.

“Virtually every one of my friends is doing something entrepreneurial,” either starting a business or going to work for a start-up, she said. “Xers are drawn to flatter, less-hierarchical firms. They want to take their destinies into their own hands.” 

Sandwiched between the larger baby boomer and millennial generations, Gen Xers are feeling quite frustrated by both groups. Born between 1965 and 1979, they continue to find boomers blocking their way to the top as older workers delay retirement.

Nearly half of Gen Xers say they feel stalled in their careers, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Talent Innovation (then known as the Center for Work-Life Policy).

At the same time, ambitious, impatient millennials are trying to jump ahead of their forty-something middle managers. Although Gen Xers are in their prime career building years, the pace of promotions had slowed for Gen Xers, while the rate for millennials had held steady, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study of the workforce in the Canadian banking industry between 2008 and 2010.

“There’s clearly a Generation X squeeze, but it was still surprising to see the decline for that generation,” said Karen Forward, director in the people and change practice at PwC, the global accounting firm. The study warned of the strong possibility of “disaffection” among Gen Xers who will increasingly be needed to provide leadership stability and absorb the organizational knowledge of retiring baby boomers.

Out of focus

Despite that need, employers continue to focus more heavily on their boomer and millennial employees. Such neglect is nothing new to Gen Xers, who have long been used to getting little attention, much like the middle child in a typical family. Back in the 1970s, they became known as latchkey kids because many came from households with two working parents or a single parent, and they often returned to empty homes after school. This experience helped make Gen Xers an independent bunch, but they still would appreciate more recognition in the workplace.

Gen Xers, though, may be contributing to their own invisibility. Because the term Gen X has carried some negative connotations — slacker, cynical, distrustful — people see the label as a stigma and avoid it altogether.

“They don’t want Generation X to be something that defines them because they feel it always limited them,” said Sean Lyons, associate professor of leadership and management at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario. “They were written off as underachievers even before they got out of the gate.”

A Gen Xer himself, Lyons does generational research and found in a 2011 study a high level of career dissatisfaction and unmet expectations among his peers.

“There’s sort of disgruntled acquiescence that we’re never going to win against the baby boomers, who control the resources,” said Lyons, who always draws a crowd of commiserating Gen Xers when he speaks about his research. “The appetite just doesn’t seem to be there for much of a Generation X imprint on the workplace before the millennials take over. There’s a feeling they won’t be there that long — kind of like Prince Charles who’s just in the way between Queen Elizabeth and Prince William.”

But regardless of how long they’re in charge, Gen Xers bring valuable assets to the workplace. They are a technology savvy, self-reliant group that doesn’t require the constant guidance and positive feedback that many attention-seeking millennials demand. Their parents weren’t as involved in scheduling their lives as millennial parents, so they learned early to figure things out on their own.

Yet because many Gen Xers possess this independent, entrepreneurial streak, they clearly could be a flight risk for companies looking to groom future leaders. More than a third of Gen Xers said they planned to leave their current employer in the next three years, the Center for Talent Innovation study found. In addition, 70% said they prefer to work independently, and of those who like being their own boss, 81% cited a desire for control over their work.

 

Keeping valued employees

To keep their most valued Gen Xers, companies can try to tap into these entrepreneurial instincts and find ways to give these employees the freedom to be innovative. Employers also must provide some mobility within the organization — preferably movement up in terms of both pay and status. But many Gen Xers would settle for even lateral moves that help them develop their skills — as long as they see promotions on the horizon. Rather than make nebulous promises, employers should start handing over the keys by including Gen Xers in discussions about management succession and the future of the company.

Employers also can retain restless Gen Xers by offering greater workplace flexibility, something they value highly as a group — perhaps as much as millennials do. Many have families, but even childless employees want more freedom to balance their lives — another possible motivation for starting their own businesses. Even if they’re never going to be in the spotlight, Gen Xers at least want to control how and when they work.

While Gen Xers may yearn for a major career change, companies can take some comfort in the fact that they may not be able to afford the risk of starting a business or moving to a lower-paying, but more satisfying job. Several recent studies have found that Gen Xers are struggling more than other generations to pay their bills and to save for retirement. From 2007 to 2010, for instance, Gen Xers lost 45% of their wealth, significantly more than baby boomers, according to a study this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Many Gen Xers graduated into weak job markets, carrying hefty student debt. Then, along the way, they lost ground in recessions, the dot-com bust, middle management downsizings and the housing market collapse. 

“The constant theme for Gen Xers is that they were thwarted at every turn in trying to get established,” Lyons said. “There’s always a lot of head nodding when I get to the point in my presentation about Gen Xers being disadvantaged. It’s a sore spot that just won’t go away.”

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Gen Xers ... are a technology savvy, self-reliant group that doesn’t require the constant guidance.