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Dear Gen X

Northeast Wisconsin experts offer strategies for managing a variety of generations within an organization

Story by Jan Padron

March 2018

Never before has there been such a generational divide in the workplace. What makes it a challenge is that the three generations grew up in very different ways, facing different challenges that define who they are.

From how they communicate to how they work, Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials couldn’t be more different from one another. Those differences are highlighted in how they want to be communicated with, how they lead, how they want to be managed to how they view the world.

As Boomers start to retire, Gen X is being asked to step up into leadership roles managing both the generation before them and after them. All over social media and the Internet, there are videos of Baby Boomers mocking Millennials, but quietly, in between them is Generation X.

Gen X: Stuck between the “Me” generations

Born between 1961 and 1981, Generation X is in a unique position. Sandwiched between what is defined as two of the most self-absorbed generations, Generation X is at a point where they are moving into executive roles.

Initially described as ‘the slacker’ generation because their desire for work-life balance, it’s important to understand what shapes them, and the generations that bookend them. According to Karen McCullough, an entrepreneur and team management expert who’s sought out around the country to speak about generations in the workforce, it’s not the years in which a generation defines us, but rather it’s the experiences.

“It comes down to knowing what experiences shaped one another,” added McCullough. “When I’m presenting to a group, I like to point out the differences in how the generations were raised, what life was like for them.”

McCullough has presented to companies throughout the country including Procter & Gamble, Symantec, and Lockheed Martin on how to lead and sell to the generations. She’s made a career out of helping Boomers, Gen X and Millennials understand what makes the other tick.

Writer Tom Wolf defined the 1970s as the “Me” decade. He commented on the rise of a culture of narcissism among the younger generation of that era. The notion caught on at the time that the generation of Boomers became more focused on self-realization and self-fulfillment. They were waiting until they were older to have children, more women were going to college and entering the workforce.

“Adults didn’t coddle this generation,” said McCullough. “Gen X saw first hand that their parent was human and fallible. They often found themselves giving their parents advice and comfort. Autonomy and self-reliance rather than respect for authority were natural byproducts of the Generation X childhood.”

Generation X learned a lot of distrust as their parents lost their jobs in droves. More than 43 million jobs were downsized between 1979 and 1995. As laid-off workers started new jobs that often meant lower pay, more and more mothers – who had stayed home and were raised by a stay-at-home mom themselves – started joining the workforce to help keep the family afloat. It created the ‘latch-key kid’ who went home after school, did their homework, completed a list of chores, and started dinner – all without any supervision. This contributed toward making them far more self-sufficient than any other generation before them.

“It’s easy to see that Gen X could be the last generation of teens to grow up with freedom, independence, and the luxury to try different things on their own, fail, and try again,” added McCullough.

That freedom is not a luxury Millennials have enjoyed. Born between 1982 and 1996, Millennials are the children of the ‘helicopter parent.’ Their parents often waited until later in life to have them, and as a result were much older parents than previous generations. Millennials are far more technologically advanced, having grown up with technology all of their lives.

The younger members of this generation were the ones who grew up with social media. They were told by parents and teachers they were special, and that everyone was a winner just for participating in any activity. This treatment led to an increased sense of entitlement that’s often the punchline to many jokes.

A 2016 study by digital marketing agency Syzygy Group focused on two narcissistic traits: 1) grandiose narcissism, characterized by attention-seeking behavior, power, and dominance; and 2) vulnerable narcissism, defined by an acute sense of self-entitlement and defensiveness. In studying those traits among various generations, it found that Millennials exhibited 16 percent more narcissistic behavior than older adults.

As a manager of people, the goal is and has always been to get the best out of each employee. To do that, the Gen X leader is going to have to make some significant changes in their hands-off approach to management.

Focus on similarities

According to Millennial Branding and Beyond.com, 75 percent of the global workplace will be made up by Millennials by 2025 – just seven years from now. That same report found 45 percent of companies experience high turnover with those employees identified as Millennials. With the last of the Baby Boomers reaching the age of retirement by 2025, this is the time to integrate the workforce.

To make sure the transition is a successful one, more and more companies are focusing on ways they can retain the talent pool of younger workers. Lee Bouche, a corporate trainer with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, is one area consultant helping local companies understand how to bridge generations in the workplace.

“As managers, we sometimes tend to focus more on what makes us different from each other and less on what we have in common,” said Bouche. “We value a lot of the same things. It’s just that we express our value for them in different ways.”

One way to help the generations realize their similarities is by creating multi-generational work teams.

“Give your employees the opportunities to work in cross-generational teams. It helps promote team building and is a great way to help people to know each other as individuals rather than judging them by the stereotype of the category they are part of,” he said.

It’s not just about team building when it comes to blending the generations together within an organization. It also comes down to managing them the way they are most receptive.

Gen X’ers tend to be hands-off managers. They are trusting employees to get the work done, and only bother them when they need help. But that’s not necessarily effective for the other two generations.

Shelia Leonard, owner of Green Bay-based human resource consulting firm HR Energized, agrees.

“Before Gen X can bridge the generation gap, they need to understand both sides,” Leonard said. “Take the time to understand the differences in mindsets of Boomers and Millennials. Focus on the similarities as both Boomers and Gen Y are typically optimistic and invested in performing good work.”

She also warns not to deny or downplay the differences.

“Those differences are there and are real,” said Leonard. “It’s a balancing act. You need to capitalize on the best characteristics of each generation and encourage them to recognize and respect the strengths and contributions of the other. Encourage focus on what each brings to the party rather than the differences in methods and mindsets.”

Taking a more hands-on approach

With their independent nature, Gen X’ers are not naturally inclined to foster the critical, supportive relationships that effective leadership requires. As the saying goes, once you recognize a problem, you can work to change it.

“Gen X needs to recognize they need to make some fundamental changes,” stated Judy Ruhl, a management development consultant and instructor at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton. “To me, they need to learn how to communicate aggressively. They’ve got to communicate in a lot of different ways. Email, face-to-face, text messaging, phone.”

Ruhl also suggests creating opportunities for employees to learn from one another.

“Millennials are very tech savvy – there is a lot that they can teach older employees about technology today. This fluidity makes them very open to change,” added Ruhl. “Boomers have experienced a lot of different things throughout their careers. They can impart that wisdom to younger employees.”

The one area Boomers and Millennials are similar in is needing feedback. Gen X will need to break out of their comfort zone and provide that.

“Both of these generations want to be heard. They also want to know that their opinions and experiences are valued,” said Ruhl. “It’s important to them to create opportunities to provide feedback.”

While Gen-X doesn’t need to be told they’re doing a good job, they need to make sure their subordinates know that they are. They also need to foster opportunities for mentorship.

“Because of how Millennials were raised, they didn’t learn a lot of the core skills older employees have,” added Ruhl. “Rather than let the younger employee struggle, successful Gen-X managers are creating mentorship opportunities to help develop and strengthen employees in areas where they aren’t strong.”

A sure way to fail

It’s time for Gen X to step up to the plate and take a swing at a leadership role in their organizations. The sure way for them to fail is if they don’t.

McCullough, who claims Generation X as the one she associates most with, doesn’t sugar coat the challenges that this generation faces.

“Gen X has a very challenging road ahead as they manage three different generations in the workplace, and soon to add a fourth who comes with their own set of uniqueness. They have a few critical choices to make. Are they willing to change how they work? Are they willing to change how they view work?”

This new leadership role for the generation currently in their late 30s, 40s and early to mid-50s means different hours, a more hands-on approach to management, and leading the team rather than just getting their work done and heading home.

“I want Gen X to know, that it’s never too late to change,” added McCullough. “But if they don’t, and if they don’t step up to the challenge of leadership, there are plenty of Millennials who will.”

Jan Padron is a freelance writer and owner of Oshkosh-based Padron Marketing Communications. She has more than 12 years of experience in feature, public relations and copywriting.