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Generation X

Reaction To 'Boomer Parent's Lament'

I recently read a 2011 opinion piece from the New York Times entitled “Boomer Parent’s Lament”. The writer of the piece, Timothy Egan, despairs at the future for those who, like me, are members of Generation Y. In today’s harsh economic climate, many of my peers are burdened with heavy student loan debt and if they have a minimum-wage job that needs no degree are still considered lucky to at least have a paycheck.

Today, “special” doesn’t cut it

I recently read a 2011 opinion piece from the New York Times entitled “Boomer Parent’s Lament”. The writer of the piece, Timothy Egan, despairs at the future for those who, like me, are members of Generation Y. In today’s harsh economic climate, many of my peers are burdened with heavy student loan debt and if they have a minimum-wage job that needs no degree are still considered lucky to at least have a paycheck.

Egan goes on to blame the parents, the Boomers, for filling our heads with the idea that our generation is special and focusing our self-worth on our grades, our jobs and our incomes. We were expected to achieve greatness, but were rewarded for mediocrity.

Now, in an economy where greatness is even harder to achieve, many of my generation are left with a feeling of failure, but are unprepared to deal with it.

There is certainly an amount of truth to his arguments. I experienced the rewarding for mediocrity, evidenced by the multitude of rainbow colored “participation” ribbons from elementary school summer swim team next to the sparse collection of blue first-place ribbons. I also experienced the expectations of greatness, from good grades in school to taking on leadership roles in activities. My Boomer mother pushed me to tour what became my alma mater, St. Catherine University, a women’s college where the mission statement of “lead and influence” is a recurring theme.

I am grateful for these experiences and do not lament anything instilled in me by my Boomer parents.

Take a lesson from the past

Yet, Egan is only really taking into account two generations: the Boomers and their Generation Y offspring. This, for me, is the key. In addition to my Boomer parents, I have had the influence of all four of my Traditionalist grandparents.

Along with all those aggrandizing comments and expectations typical of my generation, I was instilled with a sense of history. I learned of my grandparents’ childhood during the Great Depression and their young adulthood during WWII. They worked hard in order to provide for their families and their true accomplishment was seeing that all their families truly needed was taken care of.

Egan remarks on his father, but makes no reference to making an effort to instill his father’s work ethic and values into his children. It is my grandparents, not my parents, who have truly shaped my view of accomplishment. My parents pushed me to achieve, my grandparents’ work ethic showed me how. They also taught me to be grateful for what I have and to experience the feeling of accomplishment in small things, in family moments and in giving back to the community.

Perhaps instead of lamenting what Boomer parents “should have done” with their Generation Y children, we should all follow the example of my grandparents. Accomplishment comes in many forms and self-worth is not found in a paycheck.

If you have a job, you ARE lucky. Now work hard and do the best you can and keep going. If you have a loving family, friends and time to be with them, you ARE lucky. Now make sure you spend time with them and cherish it. If you have the opportunity to give back somehow, you ARE lucky. Now go see if you can help make someone else’s life a little easier, and perhaps discover new opportunities, passions and even self-worth.

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.

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