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Generation X

To Gen X, it was More than Purple Rain

The world is still reeling from the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, the multi-platinum-selling music legend who died on April 21. Prince was an influential artist in a recording career spanning 38 years, and his music became the soundtrack for Generation X (1965-1981) who grew up listening to his music.

The world is still reeling from the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, the multi-platinum-selling music legend who died on April 21.

Prince was an influential artist in a recording career spanning 38 years, and his music became the soundtrack for Generation X (1965-1981) who grew up listening to his music.

Prince was, for many Xers, a musical and cultural touchstone — you’ll notice it’s your Gen X friends bearing the pain of his passing more than most. After all, Xers were born at the tail end of The Beatles and Bowie eras. The majority of this generation came of age as pop-culture began to challenge the common social mindset — and Prince was the one leading the social revolution.

The authors of Prince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon wrote about the 1980s Reagan era when being defined by gender, religion, and ethnicity was expected and society was experiencing high unemployment and the very real prospect of nuclear war.

From 1982 to 1992, Prince was at his creative peak, releasing a new album every year and his music challenged these social conventions and offered a “safe space for his fans to explore their place within a confusing socio-cultural context.”

In other words, to Generation X Prince was more than a musician; he was someone who rejected labels and inspired an entire generation to live beyond them, too.

While we can look back and realize how visionary and talented he was, at the height of his fame Prince was trying to differentiate in a world that wasn’t really ready for differentiation. Nevertheless, he never conformed to what others wanted him to be.

Prince brazenly blended rock, R&B, funk, pop and jazz like few artists before or since. He sat at the edges of race, gender, and sexuality and rejected all borders, seeking to avoid categorization and be a genre unto himself.

Prince was one of the first artists to make his bands black and white, male and female. A former band member reflected on the experience in an interview:

“There were women in the band who were lesbians. There were whites and blacks in the band, and several of us who were Jewish in the band. There was this image Prince was trying to present to the world that it’s not about the differences in us, so let’s celebrate the diversity.”

In 1993, Prince engaged in a war with Warner Bros. Records after the label refused to release his music when he wanted. At one point he wrote ‘slave’ across his face and changed his name to a symbol.

“People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face,” Prince told Rolling Stone in an interview. “But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave. If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”

Reflecting on his lengthy career, it seems that Prince was never afraid to stand out, stand up, or stand alone. He challenged conventions and he did so at a moment in history when many people most needed to hear it.

Many Xers admired Prince for his brutal honesty, creativity, and work ethic, and they even respected his anti-social personality offstage. In so many ways, Prince was a spokesperson for the generation came of age at the crossroads of cultural and social change and faced their own identity crises.

Very few artists had a bigger effect on the music industry than Prince and even fewer were as widely respected, which is why the world turned purple on the day Prince died.

National monuments, landmarks, and even planes radiated a purple glow, as the world paid tribute to one of music’s most distinctive geniuses. Google and 3M modified their logos. The Weather Channel’s Weather Underground changed all the rain icons purple, NASA tweeted a purple nebula in honor of Prince, The New Yorker announced a Purple Rain cover, and Snapchat introduced a Purple Rain filter.

Chevrolet’s Corvette tribute was among the best — a full page message from the brand the singer helped to immortalize with his song “Little Red Corvette” in 1982. The ad which appeared in USA TodayDetroit News/Free PressLos Angeles TimesMinneapolis Star Tribune, and The New York Times simply stated: “Baby, that was much too fast. 1958-2016.”

And indeed, it was. Especially for Generation X.

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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