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Generation X

Economic Crisis Isn't New To Gen X

As we enter the second year of the U.S. financial economic crisis that started in August 2007 with the sub-prime lending meltdown, the impact on the economy and the average American has been devastating.

As we enter the second year of the U.S. financial economic crisis that started in August 2007 with the sub-prime lending meltdown, the impact on the economy and the average American has been devastating.I've been asked how younger generations will fare in this economic hail storm, and I assure you that Generation X is resilient. We've been on the short end of the stick more times than we can count.On a personal level, Xers were the first generation of latchkey children and divorce, with 40% of marriages ending in divorce during our childhoods.Professionally, the 1970s introduced 30 years of massive layoffs in corporate America. Xers observed the dot-com bust and we graduated from college during a time of high unemployment rates and took just about any job we could manage to find. We've never known job security and we trust few of our nation's leaders, since we've seen a series of them — from President Richard Nixon and Reverend Jim Baker to the Enron CEO lie and fail to deliver on their promises.And here we are in 2008- knee-deep in debt and house mortgages. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said that mortgage defaults wouldn't harm the U.S. economy, but is predicting that by the end of 2008 over 2.8 million U.S. households will either be in foreclosure, be forced to give their house over to their lender, and move out or sell their home for an amount lower than their actual mortgage balance.This is par for the course when you're an Xer. Are we cynical because of it? Perhaps.But I think it's more likely that Xers have adopted a 'can-do' attitude realizing that thus far, the woes the world has doled out hasn't prevented us from achieving success or happiness. We have learned to do what we have to do to make it in this world, and there's really nothing that shocks us anymore.So when I read the article, Lessons Learned from the U.S. Financial Crisis, I couldn't help but think it was an article geared towards Boomers and Ys. Among his list of lessons (and my Xer responses):

  • Only buy a house you can afford. (For Xers, the future has always been uncertain, which is why we'd much rather go into debt than live within our means. At least we'd go bankrupt or die knowing we lived in a nice big house.)
  • There is no such thing as a guaranteed retirement. (We've known this all along. That's why we've refused to be married to our jobs, introduced work-life balance, and pursued work that made us happy. We'll probably be working well past retirement age to pay off all our debt anyway.)
  • Be wary of 401K plans. (Obviously! We're wary of anything that isn't here and now. In an Xers world, retirement funds and social security is the equivalent of Monopoly money.)
  • There's no such thing as a "safe secure job." (We've never known job security. We live in constant fear of being laid off, downsized, or merged.)
  • You MUST have a Plan B. (I think it's safe to say our whole lives have been on a Plan B. From broken households to a bumpy economy, we know better than any other generation how to make the best of a situation and ride out the economic hail storm.)

Undoubtedly, the financial crisis is a serious concern. But Generation X has been raised rolling with the punches. So don't be surprised when you find us standing strong as opposed to shaking in our boots. We are resilient, we have both time and experience on our side (unlike the Boomers and Ys respectively), and we will rise to this challenge just as we've risen to all the others.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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