Generation X at the Turning Point

Generation X at the Turning Point

Let’s take that list of what to expect of the living generations in the current social era – the Crisis Era in Strauss & Howe terms – and look at the expectations for my generation, Generation X. My generation is in mid-life now, between the ages of 36 and 57, in the phase of life where we will reach the peak of our career achievement and financial earnings. Having already sorted ourselves into winners and losers in the Unraveling Era, and then weathered the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession, for many us this peak won’t amount to much. Many of us will be lucky if we can retire with even a modicum of comfort.

A tiny minority of us have become the wildly successful and wealthy techno-utopians who have reformatted the economy. The billionaires at the very top of the heap even have their own space programs. But most of us are just muddling along, without a grand plan, as we have all of our lives. Despite economic recovery, we are anxious about what disruptions will come in the remaining few decades that we will be able to earn a living. We haven’t all been materially ruined – yet – but the Crisis Era is not over, and our President has decided to start a Trade War (insert eye roll emoji here).

It is plain that Generation X is ambivalent about the emerging new order. On social media we confront the current political crisis with posts that range in tenor from mocking to incredulous to anguished. It is unclear where we are headed, so ambivalence is perhaps inevitable. What is clear is that the old Culture Wars of the previous era have come to a head – and while some of us have picked our faction, many of us remain on the sidelines.

Gen X may be overshadowed by older generations, which have retained power at the highest echelons of government. For the most part we are ignored in the media, obsessed as it is with the generation that came after us. But we’ve quietly taken over managerial leadership positions in both the private and public sectors, where we can make a difference behind the scenes. Our generation’s archetype is known for its pragmatism and resolve in solving the issues of the Crisis Era, and with the unfolding future comes our chance to live up to the expectation.

5 thoughts on “Generation X at the Turning Point

  1. To address the related sub-issue of “ageism” in the work place, I’ll offer my thoughts within a certain geography and qualitative demography.

    Here in the United States, there are two types of Baby Boomers:

    1. Those who came of age during the Truman/Eisenhower era.
    2. Those who came of age during the Kennedy/Nixon era.

    My parents, like most Gen X’ers parents, are of the Truman/ Eisenhower virtue whereas the Millennials’ parents were shaped by the Kennedy/Nixon era. Those two eras were vastly different in almost all aspects, including parenting styles.

    Gen X’ers were raised with a boot to the butt and soap in the mouth. We were directed (intentionally or not) to rely on oneself and not others. The world was described to us as dog eats dog and it was up to you to fend for yourself. All the while our parents were wishing for the day we turn 18, thus having served their self-imposed prison sentence. Because in reality, a lot of us were “surprises”.

    So from day one we had to gnash, gnash, gnash, grind, grind, grind without active support from the majority of adults. Heck back in the 70’s and 80s adults thought we were the cause of life’s short comings. It was always a battle, rarely did it feel like genuine cooperation. So our M.O. was “survival” which was repackaged as “success”. Once in the workplace, the battles continued which included several recessions with the most recent three having jobless recoveries. No matter how much you have prepared for it, it has been surreal and a surprisingly unexpected and unprecedented experience.

    With Millennials’ parents, their parenting was more calculated, and they had a lot more tools to avoid “surprises” and were heavily involved in every aspect of their children’s life. Millennials were not “directed” but “groomed” from the get go. Their parents optimistically saw them as seeds of a future they envisioned. A derivative mindset planted by the idealism of the late 60’s/early 70’s. So the battle was set: realism vs. optimism, individualism vs. collectivism, results vs intentions, kinetic vs potential, etc.

    What is happening now is that most of the Truman/Eisenhower Baby Boomers, who have the mentality of “I got mine, but make sure you keep paying your FICA and Medicare taxes”, are retired. When they retired, the Kennedy/Johnson Boomers took over the majority of leadership and decision making roles.
    This was a major change of philosophy; from “command and control” to “listen and share”. For the Kennedy/Johnson Boomers, goals and intentions were more important than execution and results. Why? This stemmed from their experience during the Vietnam War and the aftermath. This particular set of Boomers had fundamental ideological contentions about the Vietnam War. Throughout the war, they heard from military leaders and politicians about how many Viet Cong were killed, how many strategic enemy positions were destroyed, etc. But it didn’t matter how well a campaign was executed or the results it generated. If it did not aligned with the Boomers’ view of the world or assuaged the turmoil in the US. What are they good for? Absolutely nothing. Therefore, results are suspect, and bigger and wider aspirations should be attempted. Thus, the mission of “noble intentions” will lead to “noble outcomes” became the mainstay for decades, eventually overflowing into the workplace. So how does Gen X fit in this philosophical shift that has it seeds from decades ago? We don’t.

    In their eyes (Kennedy/Johnson Boomers’), Gen X has never really been viewed as extensions of themselves, or springboards for a new and brave future, especially as the Kennedy/Johnson Boomers have envisioned. Contrary, Gen X’ers are seen as people who “get things done, but do not do things.” In other words, people who know how to run the ship(s) very well, but aren’t in serious contention for captain(s) of the ship(s). That role is reserved for their children, the Millennials, thus reflective of “noble intentions lead to noble outcomes.”
    That doesn’t mean that Kennedy/Johnson Boomers will directly hire their kin, but they will prefer to hire other Millennials because those Millennials are effigies of their own children. This mentality is further exasperated with the Kennedy/Johnson Boomers’ empty nest syndrome at home. So in the collective, worldly thinking of Kennedy/Johnson Boomers, the concept is, “I will nurture and guide my cohorts’ kids like my own.” and therefore, in aggregation, the Millennials will be taken care of. So what can a Gen X’ers do in this professional purgatory where the bookends have been defined for them?

    At best, damage control, at the worst, nothing. In reality, there is nothing Gen X’ers can do to help each other, collectively. Reason is, individualism is too well ingrained in us. We may not always view another X’er as a sworn enemy, but we do have the imprinted pretense, that a fellow Gen X’er is competition, in one form or another. That is how we were raised and it is a mindset that would be very hard to change, given decades of conditioning and the opportunity costs associated with such a shift. So what we CAN DO is to stop engaging in the self-inflicting and self-sabotaging behavior that has and is contributing to our professional trajectory’s demise.

    It is not the intent of the Millennial to supplant a Gen X’er, but rather to implement the hype, which their parents and social networks have fostered, no matter how unfeasible or impractical it may be. This includes their line of work and the respective professional institutions. So an X’er needs to be cognitive of this generational dynamic, relationship and world view in their workplace.

    In essence, if you are a Gen X’er and hire a Millennial while your reporting manager or executives are Kennedy/Johnson Boomers, you have written your own death warrant. The Millennial will leap frog you, not so much due to merit, but because of their brand as a brand extension of their parents, who now control the money. So if you have say in that control point, be very mindful of what you let in, because the cost savings at that entry level line item will be at you own expense in the long run. So choose wisely.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Leo. For many Gen-Xers (myself included) there isn’t even a question of rising in the ranks. I have been a contractor for most of my adult life – it’s like mercenary work. There was a great reddit thread that read like Gen-Xers giving advice to Millennials on how to live in this mode- like it was the new normal, connected to pervasive outsourcing.

    https://www.reddit.com/r/news/comments/9axwla/theyre_liquidating_us_att_continues_layoffs_and/

    It is still possible to advance professionally in this mode; it’s about building skill sets and reputation.

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