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Generation X
Generation Y

From One Gen Xer To Another

We often joke that Generation X is the forgotten middle child of today’s generational conflict. It’s like being the Jan Brady of the workforce, stuck between glamorous Marcia and cute-as-a-button-with-pigtails Cindy. In many ways, this is more than a joke. It’s the reality. Gen X makes up only 22% of the current workforce with Gen Y/Millennials and Baby Boomers making up the other 78%.

I often joke that Generation X is the forgotten middle child of today’s generational conflict. It’s like being the Jan Brady of the workforce, stuck between glamorous Marcia and cute-as-a-button-with-pigtails Cindy. In many ways, this is more than a joke. It’s the reality. Gen X makes up only 22% of the current workforce with Gen Y/Millennials and Baby Boomers making up the other 78%.

While we might be small in number, I believe Gen Xers have the potential to make a significant contribution to the whole. The groups with the most voices may be the loudest, but that doesn’t mean they are the most impactful.

I started thinking about this in earnest after a recent workshop our team facilitated for the small department of a university. The department was struggling with a great deal of discord, and generational differences were at the root of it.

As we workshopped through some generational scenarios, the gaps became evident. Millennials were openly mocked and Boomers were dismissed as irrelevant. The irony is that the both generations were quick to jump on the bandwagon to bash the other. But the catalyst for the generational disdain? That was coming from the Gen Xers.

Sandwiched between two very large generations, the Xers can adapt and relate to each generation, yet they are desperately seeking their own voices and opportunities. We crave work-life balance and know how to use technology (even if it’s not always intuitive, we Google it). At the same time, we appreciate the value of traditions and on-the-job experience, because that’s the world in which we were raised.

We get the Jan Brady references and the Parks and Rec ones. For good measure, we also have Seinfeld and Friends in our repertoire. Because we have a foot in both worlds, we are well-positioned to help bridge the gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials. However, we have to be more than well-positioned, we have to care.

For the last 34 years, Baby Boomers have been the workforce majority . That’s a very long time for one generation to remain in leadership! As a result, values are deeply held and processes are so ingrained they can feel unchangeable. However, they will change because Millennials are now the workforce majority and they have their own unique values and processes which will impact everything by sheer volume. The question is not: Will change happen? The question is: How will it happen?

Imagine this is a relay race and the Boomers have the baton. Regardless of how fast they ran or how much longer they could run, they are turning the corner and approaching the handoff. As of now, I don’t know how the handoff is going to go. Either there will be a lot of fumbling or dropping of the baton, resulting in high turnover or the dissolution of organizations, or it will be a smooth and beneficial transition.

I don’t know about you, but I want the transition to be a good one. I want our nation’s organizations to carry on and achieve even greater success.

As a Gen Xer, I didn’t start the race and I’m not going to finish it. My role, however, is critical. I am running the middle leg of this relay. Baby Boomers are looking towards the handoff, Millennials are looking at what’s next. It is our generation that is best positioned to keep one eye on what’s ahead and one on what’s behind us to make the transition smooth and help us all succeed.

So to all the Xers out there, let’s embrace our role as the middle child and the perspective and tenacity we’ve been gifted to help our teams advance. We may only be 22 percent of the workforce, but we’re powerful and influential and unique. We’re the gritty, never-give-up, fight-for-your-right generation. We’re the middle kids. And the sooner we take pride and ownership in that role, the better off our organizations will be.

Jan out.


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.

Jodie Swee

Together we’re better. This is Jodie Swee’s motto when it comes to generational differences. She has spent the last twenty years digging into the psychology of Millennials and is passionate about helping to bridge the gap with older generations. Jodie's background in sketch comedy sprinkles humor into the realities of our multi-generational workforce.

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