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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.

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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