By Paula Schleis
The Akron Beacon Journal.
Trying to define Generation X is like trying to pin down a chameleon’s color.
The nation’s 36- to 50-year-olds admit they can be invisible sometimes, stuck between two larger, louder and more aggressive demographics.
But being the middle child gives them a unique advantage.
“I like being bilingual,” said Nichole Booker, a nonprofit officer, referring to her ability to understand baby boomers while keeping up with younger millennials. “I think we navigate both worlds pretty effectively.”
Booker was one of nine Gen X representatives who participated in an Akron Beacon Journal focus group exploring generational differences, something that is growing more relevant as boomers begin to retire, leaving voids in the workplace and community.
The sessions were conducted by researcher Alice Rodgers, in cooperation with Leadership Akron and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The sessions were conducted with an understanding of anonymity unless they agreed afterward to be named in stories.
Statistically, Gen Xers are the children of the Silent Generation (the folks who came of age during World War II) and the oldest of the baby boomers born in the 1940s.
Researchers say Gen X is cynical of government and big business. Unlike boomers, they are less interested in changing the world and more focused on their immediate community. They are late to marry, quick to divorce, self-reliant and street-smart.
They inherited from their parents an old-fashioned work ethic and sense of responsibility. Yet growing up at the dawn of the digital age, they also learned how to change, adapting to new technology and societal shifts that came with it.
With one foot in the past and one firmly in the present, they’ve become good problem-solvers who don’t easily fall apart when modern methods fail, one bank officer said.
“When something breaks, we know how things were done before,” he said.
“Or we know how to do without it,” agreed Katie Wright, the 42-year-old founder of a local construction company, one of many women in small business.
Gen Xers describe their role as a bridge between the oldest and youngest members of the workforce.
“I see us as the mediator or communicator,” Wright said. “We understand a little bit about where the baby boomers have been and we’ve learned from them, and we’re anticipating and learning how the millennials are coming in and what they feel is important.”
Finding their place
Still, being in the middle means the potential for being squeezed.
Most boomers, whose youngest members are only 51 years old, are still years from retirement. Meanwhile, the 18- to 35-year-old millennials, born into a culture that rewards speed and immediacy, don’t abide quaint notions of paying dues and waiting one’s turn.
With boomers slow to leave and millennials barreling through, some Gen Xers worry that they may be skipped over for opportunities that have been a lifetime in coming.
Others insist that fear won’t affect them as individuals.
“Will I get opportunities in my organization? I’m not worried at all about it as long as I’m accountable and show passion,” said an attorney.
“I’m in corporate America where I work, and I really could care less,” the bank officer agreed. “That’s not what motivates me. If I’m doing now what I’m doing for the next 15 years, great.”
Gen X is a key player in succession planning, and some members have noticed their employers doing more to delegate responsibilities and offer experience.
Others say that trend isn’t happening fast enough. Too many business owners and executives are hanging onto “institutional secrets” — a “sort of mentality that might stand in the way of Gen Xers,” one focus group member said.
On a personal level, Gen Xers say they are enjoying the sweet spot that comes with being in their late 30s and 40s. Many are married and are done having children. They also tend to be settled in their career choices, with clear goals for the future.
“I think we’re in a good place,” said an accountant.
Where baby boomers were more likely to sacrifice school plays or late afternoon ballgames to put in more hours at the office, Gen X has insisted on time for family.
That may be because they were the original “latchkey kids,” growing up isolated and street-smart as the women’s movement offered their moms more career opportunities for women in business.
The pendulum may have swung too far, however. Some see their generation as “hoverers” who are spoiling Generation Z, born from the late 1990s through present day.
“I do think we are less stringent on our children,” said one Gen X dad. “I think we cater a little more.”
What boomers say
“Future leaders.” “Innovative.” “Invisible.”
Those were some of the ways baby boomers described the generation that follows them.
The latter point was further confirmed by a focus group member who said: “I’ve lost them somewhere. It’s like I’m trying to reach for them and define them and they seem to be more nebulous.”
Some boomers see Gen X as the group where continuity was lost.”Things that were passed on were dropped, I think,” said a community relations director.
But they also get credit for trying to be “open minded to the way we did things and incorporate some of that,” a nonprofit officer said.
Gen Xers have built their resumes and are waiting for boomers to get out of their way. Yet they don’t have the same sense of urgency that millennials seem to have.
“They have a career path in mind, but they don’t expect to be hired in as the CEO,” one focus group member said.
Boomers share the view that millennials are moving so fast — and are so tech-savvy — that they’ll skip over some hard-working Gen Xers.
“You’ve got 3-year-olds using iPads, so they’re growing up with that and people in the middle might be squeezed out,” said an insurance executive.
Gen Xers are more patient and less likely to take risks than millennials, and that makes them better allies in the workplace, boomers said.
But their patience isn’t infinite. They are the first modern generation to change employers frequently. Some researchers say eight to 10 times.
To an older generation that spent a lifetime in one place, boomers struggle to understand. Some read it as a lack of loyalty. Others see a sense of entitlement.
“I sense on a priority list that a job is maybe third or fourth,” said an attorney.
They agreed, however, that circumstances forced many changes.
“Most of us, we graduated from college and there was immediate opportunity. … I think with that generation, they came along during the substandard economy,” said a job retention specialist. “A lot of them graduated with debt and no opportunity for employment.”
Gen Xers’ work and social circles are almost as homogenous as boomers, the older generation said. Boomers admired the ability to juggle work and family.
“The Gen Xers are still following the pattern that our generation did, and that is nailing it down,” a clergyman said. “They focus on family and the profession and they’re just hitting their stride.”
What millennials say
Millennials also admire Gen X for their balance of career and home.
“They’re going to do what they have to do, but they want consideration of their family,” said a training officer.
They also brought more flexibility and compromise to the workplace.
“I think they definitely consider your opinion when you give it, and maybe give you more flexibility to just go ahead and do it,” said an accountant.
And yet Gen Xers are hesitant to take chances.
“Where they’re at, it’s really just a struggle. They might like the idea [proposed by a millennial], but then they want to appease the baby boomers so that they can [advance into] their role,” a hospital worker said.
A nonprofit officer agreed, saying many Gen Xers think, “I want to please this baby boomer. I want to give him exactly what he wants.”
As a result, the generation is missing opportunities to make an impact.
“I would say the Gen Xers just want to be told something to do and then go do it,” said an IT supervisor, “whereas maybe the two generations at the opposite ends are wanting to leap in and do it themselves.”
The idea of losing opportunities to younger ladder-climbers seems to be a valid one.
“When the baby boomers finally step down, if the Gen Xers don’t step up, then they’re going to get jumped,” said an insurance agent.
“Right,” another agreed. “I mean, it’s going to be whoever steps up and is ready to bat.”