Book a Speaker
Grow Membership
Reduce Turnover
XYZ University YouTube Page LogoXYZ University Instagram Page LogoXYZ University LinkedIn Page LogoXYZ University Twitter Page LogoXYZ University Facebook Page LogoXYZ University Vimeo LogoXYZ University RSS Feed Logo
Generation X

Reality Bites For Employers Who Can't Get To X

Generation X, the 48 million Americans born between 1965 and 1981, have become accustomed to being invisible –but no company can afford to ignore them now. Unfortunately, most companies haven’t come to this realization yet.

Generation X, the 48 million Americans born between 1965 and 1981, have become accustomed to being invisible –but no company can afford to ignore them now. Unfortunately, most companies haven’t come to this realization yet.

Sanwiched between two behemoth, ego-centric generations, Generation X has become the Jan Brady of the workforce. Since they entered the workforce, Xers have been stuck sitting in middle management hell waiting for the Baby Boomers to retire, and now they’re desperately hoping they get the opportunity to lead before Generation Y–the largest generation in history–pushes them out of the way.

For employers worldwide, Generation X is crucial to future success but few corporate programs are directed at their needs. Smart organizations will seek to  understand what motivates them in order to sustain, retain, realize and maximize  their potential.

Here’s why getting to X is more important than ever: More than a third  of them hope to leave their jobs in three years according to a survey of the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Other key findings: 41% are unsatisfied with their rate of  advancement and 49% feel stalled in their careers; 28% are working longer hours–an average of 10 more a week than three years ago;  and 74% feel credit card debt dictates their career choices.

Bottom line: Xers are under stressed, burned-out, and frustrated. Many employers have failed to identify a clear set of opportunities for them, so there is a considerable flight risk.

The findings come at  time when businesses say it’s increasingly difficult to find qualified workers.  In the U.S., 52% of employers reported having trouble filling positions  this year. That makes workers  in Generation X, a third of whom have a bachelor’s degree or higher and the  youngest of whom have been in the workforce for about a decade, a key pool for  companies.

However, the Xer flight risk poses a challenge to companies that need bench strength for leadership. And let’s face it–in light of economic decline and the pending retirement wave, most companies need bench strength desperately right now.

Generation X was epitomized as apathetic and  directionless in films such as Reality Bites (1994).

Now, as Xers approach middle age, reality does indeed ‘bite’ for the Xers who haven’t had a smooth transition into the workplace, and it also ‘bites’ for the employers who can’t engage the Xers.

After all, Xers are the next generation of leaders. They are a company’s only succession plan. At 48 million, the Xer generation is quite small, which will undoubtedly create a war for talent in the very near future.  With very different values, needs, wants and expectations than their Boomer counterparts, the Xers are seeking opportunities to have their professional and personal needs met within a company.

Here’s what employers need to know about the forgotten, restless middle:

  • The rising cost of higher education has hit Xers particularly hard. Average college expenses are more than four times higher than it was for the Boomers.
  • Xers have never known job secruity or a stable economy. Many began their  careers as companies started merging or downsizing and cutting back on pensions and health care benefits.
  • The vast majority of Xers are on the cusp of financial disaster — in debt, laid off, or owners of a house that’s now worth half of what they bought it for.
  • Generation X is more educated and more diverse than the Boomer generation.
  • Xers were raised to be self-sufficient. They don’t rely on the government to take care of them, trust their peers more than anyone else, and prefer to do tasks on their own.
  • Xers feel guilty about the time they spend away  from their children. This generation of ‘latchkey kids’ is passionate about being involved in their children’s lives.
  • Generation X is not motivated by salary. Their primary motivator is flexibility.

Not surprising, the Generation X  survey found that 70 percent would prefer to be their own bosses. They want the  flexibility that will allow them to devote time to outside pursuits and family  obligations. Less rigid hours and less time spent in the office are very  important to them. Solutions include offering alternative opportunities to Xers  when they cannot be promoted vertically and making sure that Gen Xers without  children receive the same flexibility as those with children.

Credit Suisse began  more actively promoting flexible arrangements last year within its finance  group, expanding from a focus on working mothers to all employees, and over 95 percent of requests are granted.

At Cisco, workers  may take leave of up to 12 months and keep their benefits and jobs, which  employees most often use to have children and take care of elderly parents.In 2007, Cisco began teaming up people in  different departments for 16 weeks at a time to develop new strategic products  or initiatives. Participants have priority consideration for leadership roles  within the company.

At PepsiCo Inc., the talent strategy focus on Generation X is “laser sharp” according to a global talent VP. One new PepsiCo  program helps develop the best prospects for senior management, with six-month  assignments that combine business school training with immersion in operations  in China, India and Brazil. PepsiCo last year started a career modeling program where employees and managers set goals for assignments three to 10 years out, so  people see clear paths to advancement.

Regardless of how you do it, it needs to get done. Eventually, the Boomers will retire or just get darn tired of holding the world on their shoulders. Someday, you will need to turn to Generation X for leadership and innovation and succession. The question you must ask yourself now is: will any Xers be there in our company’s time of need?

If your company continues to overlook them as the invisible, forgotten middle, don’t count on it.

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.

More posts by this author

Take the first step towards your future.

Looking for a game changer at your next event or a strategy unique to your organization?