How to Work with and Lead Generation X
The first generation to insist on work-life balance, this group, born between 1965 and 1980, includes more women, as well as men who have assumed more home and family responsibilities. Not surprisingly, Generation X was also the generation that pushed for paternity benefits and support for stay-at-home dads. This generation was the first to rely heavily on technology.
After watching their parents and older siblings get laid off or fired by an increasingly un-loyal corporate America, Generation X brought free agency to the workplace. What does “free agency” mean? Consider a sports analogy. It used to be that a top-level athlete would play his whole career for a single team. Magic Johnson and Dan Marino are but a couple of examples. These days, however, these athletes are in the minority. More and more athletes follow the money. At the same time, the franchises they play for are quick to trade or cut players. Loyalty is dead in sports, and in many ways, it’s dead in business as well. Cradle-to-grave employment has been replaced by business free agency. Employers no longer offer the same long-term benefits and security to their employees, and employees are quick to quit a job to follow a boss, to pursue a new opportunity, or to stay home to raise their children.
Caught between Baby Boomers and Millennials, Gen X workers are experiencing growing unrest. Because their Baby Boomer predecessors have delayed retirement (or opted out altogether), members of Generation X have been denied opportunities to advance. The Great Recession of 2008–2009, which resulted in fewer growth opportunities, worsened their situation. And of course, there are the Millennials — soon to be the largest demographic in the workforce — breathing down Generation X’s neck. It’s no wonder many Gen Xers, who often view their younger cohorts as spoiled, lazy, and the recipients of way too much attention, feel stuck with no place to go! Nonetheless, they do represent the next generation of senior leaders. Figuring out how to attract, develop, and engage Generation X will be key to any organization’s success.
How to attract and hire Generation X
Members of Generation X have been frustrated by their career progression — or lack thereof. Having been pummeled by a deep and painful recession, Gen X is waiting for its next big opportunity.
In the years ahead, money will be more of a driver for Generation X than for its Boomer and Millennial counterparts. More than any other generation, Gen X has borne the brunt of the collapse in the mortgage industry, and many still owe more on their homes than those homes are worth.
Fairness is also important to Gen X. Many Gen Xers feel that the cards have been stacked against them, and they’re looking for an opportunity that evens the score — at least financially. (The perception of unfairness is a major disengagement driver.) Other recruitment hooks for this group include technology, benefits (after all, they’re the ones now having babies), and development opportunities.
How to train Generation X
Training is important to Generation X. They’re all about development opportunities. When training members of this generation, consider the following:
- Include lots of activities and individual report-backs. As with Boomers, building experiential exercises and activities into training opportunities is important. However, unlike their Boomer predecessors, Gen Xers are still looking to prove themselves and itching to show their stuff. It’s a good idea to give members of Gen X opportunities to co-lead the training, take the lead on report-backs, and otherwise shine in front of their peers. “Teaching others” is the top way in which people learn; Gen Xers are primed to take the lead in teaching others while boosting their own learning during training events.
- Have more than one solution to case studies. Now more than ever, Gen X wants to be heard, seen, and given an opportunity to make its own footprint. Pressed between two sizable generations, Gen X has ideas and wants to share them. If you expect Gen Xers to follow suit or go along with the tried and true, you risk disengaging them and losing out on a significant learning opportunity. Best-in-class organizations bring together their high potentials (often disproportionately made up of Gen X) and invite them to tackle organizational challenges, explore new markets, or evaluate the business case to expand their product offerings.
- Align training with the company’s mission. Members of Generation X are similar to members of other generations in that their training time can best be leveraged if they see a “line of sight” between the time necessary to train and the relationship of the training with the company’s overall mission.
Allow participants to provide feedback during the training session. Whereas Boomers are often more comfortable providing feedback after a training event, members of Generation X are more “instant” in their willingness (and desire) to provide feedback on the training they’re receiving. Consider it “real-time” quality improvement for your training program.
How to engage Generation X
If you’re tasked with engaging Gen Xers, consider these points:
- Don’t pile it on. Boomers may be motivated by a heavy workload, but the opposite is often true of Generation X. Instead, independence and free agency are watchwords for Gen X. If they sense that these values aren’t being honored, they’ll likely become cynical about their jobs.
- Avoid meetings. Generation X was the first generation to grow up with technology. As a result, members of this group often prefer to communicate via email rather than attending meetings.
- Flexibility is key. Despite a perception on the part of some of their elders that they work less, Gen Xers usually make up for the time they’ve taken to attend a child’s play or soccer game by working nights or weekends.
- Offer training and development opportunities. Right now, members of this generation are quite career oriented. They see themselves as next in line to take the reins. But as older workers stay on in the workplace, Gen Xers may grow impatient. To keep them engaged, you need to make them feel that they’re learning and growing. Thus, training and development are huge engagement drivers for this group.
Looking to attract and engage more Gen Xers (and Millennials) to your firm? Use the sheet in the figure to note what you do now in terms of CSR, workforce flexibility, innovation, rotation of assignments, and branding, and what you could do in each of those categories.
How to reward Generation X
Here are some rewards that can help motivate members of Generation X:
- Time off: Gen X brought the concept of work-life balance to the workplace, and today they’re at the age where they’re working parents with dual responsibilities. Companies should occasionally offer the option of a financial reward or an enhanced vacation or time-off benefit.
- Professional development opportunities: Gen Xers see themselves as next in line and are often hungry for the necessary stretch assignment, executive education course, job transfer, or other opportunity to enhance their personal and professional development.
- Accelerated promotions: Early in their careers, it was common for Boomers to wait their turn for a promotional opportunity. For example, at one engineering company, project managers were required to have ten years’ experience. Generation X — and Millennials, for that matter — won’t and shouldn’t wait a certain number of years for a promotion. Instead of “putting in their time,” they’ll simply quit and go elsewhere. Accelerating Gen X into stretch assignments will go a long way toward engaging this generation.
Technology upgrades: Generation X grew up with technology and is tech savvy. If you saddle a Gen Xer with yesterday’s technology, it will become an irritant. Giving a Gen Xer a laptop (instead of a desktop) may not, in and of itself, make her feel satisfied, but if you don’t provide it, she’ll feel unhappy. In other words, technology may not be critical to Gen Xers’ overall engagement, but not having it may lead to their disengagement.
- Participation on a prestigious committee: If Gen X represents the next generation to lead your firm, why not ask those employees to lead the next strategic planning committee or other high-profile organizational subcommittee? Not only will this help engage them, but you’ll also benefit because their insights are different from those of their Boomer predecessors.
- Opportunities to present to the senior leadership team: Want to engage a high-potential Gen Xer? Ask him to attend — or better yet, present at — the next board meeting, senior management off-site, or executive leadership team monthly meeting. Presenting to the bosses will be highly engaging to your high-potential Gen Xers.