On Gen X, the Forgotten Generation

The whole, “Ok Boomer” meme has gotten me thinking about Gen X, the forgotten generation. Just a few years ago, Boomers were talking down Gen X employees, so focused on themselves, so focused on money. Which is not how Gen X saw themselves.

Why did Gen X get this reputation? Because they came of age in the 80’s, when baby boomers like John Hughes produced movies like Risky Business – the quintessential ‘80s movie, although not from Hughes – where a lackluster teen went wild and started a brothel and made a lot of money that was immediately taken away from him, but his cynical attitude toward his parents’ generation got him into Princeton (= success).

Is that a metaphor for the dot com bubble or what?

Anyway, this kind of movie is what caused one of my boomer bosses, when I dared to negotiate for a raise/promotion, to comment on the money-orientation of my generation. This, I thought, from one of the most rabidly achievement-oriented people I knew. A woman who worked politics to try to get ahead and constantly wanted more, more, more. To me, unflaggingly earnest, whose attitude towards money was shaped by Dolly Levy (Hello, Dolly): money is fertilizer, it was put on this earth to make things grow. And why shouldn’t I ask for a promotion and a raise? I could see that I could get so much more done, influence results so much more in a bigger position; and shouldn’t I be compensated for the additional work that I was putting in? But it wasn’t what was important to me. What was important was making a difference.

This came up again in graduate school, in a class on managing diversity. The class contained boomers, millennials, and gen-X. We spent a lot of time in grad school, talking about how to manage Gen-Y (millennials) and about how boomers shaped the world. Not so much about Gen-X. When we reviewed a chart with the characteristics of each generation, the money thing came up again. One of my classmates – Gen X to the core – said, “Of course we’re obsessed about money – we know we’re going to have to take care of your boomer asses in a few years and will need every penny we have to pay for it.”

A prophetic statement.

Now when I Google Gen X, here’s what I find – they don’t mention the “money-orientation” that they used to mention, instead they call Gen X “entrepreneurs.” Interestingly, many job ads now say they want people who think like “entrepreneurs.” WikiP still called Gen X “cynical” but they did mention how hard-working they are, and how they are stuck taking care of kids and parents at the same time. Here are some other characteristics:

  • Gen X is the first generation to consider work-life balance: work hard/play hard.
  • Gen X is the last generation to be highly educated – as a cohort, they graduated college in record numbers, wrapping up just before college debt became a barrier for many aspiring to higher education.
  • Gen X is the first generation to use technology in the workplace and, because Gen X had to learn to use it early and keep learning to use the newer versions, Gen X employees are highly adaptable. This adaptability also encouraged Gen X employees to move from job to job – or try to create their own jobs — which caused people to say they were aimless. I think about one of my friends who worked for a series of magazines until he finally decided he was going to produce his own product, an art product with a limited market but which could turn out to create a niche which could be highly lucrative, although that’s not why he’s doing it.
  • Gen X is very independent. Latch-key kids who had to take care of themselves, they figure out how to get things done. When challenged, they find a solution.

But this focus on getting things done, to focus on the journey not the destination, often causes Gen X to hit a glass ceiling at work. They make it so far, only to find their way blocked by boomers, who seem determined to stay young forever and never retire. And then, when the boomers finally retire, the reins are passed to the millennials, who – as you may recall – were born thinking they knew how to do anything. (Early stories about millennials featured kids who, first day on the job, aspired to the CEO job and wrote letters to the CEO listing everything that was wrong with the company and how to fix it. Having raised kids like this, the boomers must have thought this was cute, and rewarded it with promotions.)

Wikipedia points out that most of the first responders and passengers on 9/11 were Gen X – they stepped up that day and enlisted in record numbers right after that, stepping in to clean up the mess that the boomers had created, just like they do everywhere they go. Wikipedia also points out that Gen X quietly created things like Google – slogan until 2018: “don’t be evil” a Gen X sentiment if ever there was one – but how often do you see the Google inventors on stage in a turtleneck, their head projected millions of time larger than life on a floor to ceiling, wall to wall screen behind them, like the boomer Jobs did with great frequency?

Do Gen Xers harbor resentment at having been often overlooked, at hitting glass ceilings, at never having put a president in office from their generation? And now, Gen X is the generation being targeted for age discrimination in the job market (50+ or even 40+), just as the boomers have decided to work forever and Gens Y and Z are coming up fast behind. Too young to get respect like boomers do for their lengthy experience and too old to be appreciated for their adaptability, Gen X faces discrimination more than other generations. But fear not, they say that Gen X is the most entrepreneurial, so perhaps Gen X will thrive in the new gig economy.

So is Gen X cynical? Sure. Boomers grew up remembering the halcyon days of the 1950s, the summer of love of the 60s, the sexual revolution of the 70s. Only a boomer could come up with the phrase, “Make America great again.” Gen X grew up with the aftermath of that – the ability to see clearly the people left in the shadows of discrimination during the 1950s; as children and teens, Gen X faced the crack epidemic, Aids, the divorce of their parents. In the 1980s, they began putting pictures of missing children on milk cartons, parents began to realize that there were serial killers who didn’t just hunt down prostitutes but preyed specifically on children, good children from otherwise happy families, and kids lost their ability to roam at will at the same time that the Me Generation left them Home Alone. So is Gen X cynical? It’s a wonder that they are as happy as they are.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Just wandering about, seeing what comes out of it. Perhaps it will turn into something, perhaps it won’t. I’ll keep working at it and, hey, you never know – sometimes you just have to say WTF.

Typical, right?

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