Twenty years ago Generation X was heavily talked about, characterised by grunge culture; a generation of slackers and cynics who were unfavourably compared to the hard working Boomers who were headed to the top. By 2015, the focus has so shifted to Millennials and the retirement of the boomers that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Generation X ever existed, the conversation has all but rendered them invisible. In fact, in some examinations of the generation gaps, Boomers are reported to be the majority of parents of Millennials, providing for a special bond that enables a direct skill and knowledge transfer, while the accomplishments and transformations of Generation X are given wholeheartedly over to Millennials (1).
Generation X has long been seen as the overlooked generation. There is a glut of articles focusing on the loss of the boomers to retirement and the rise of the Millennial generation, without mentioning that Gen X, while smaller than both generations and with a much lesser presence in the C-suite, is still there, with far greater entrepreneurship and managerial skills, and ranking highly in revenue generation, adaptability, problem solving and collaboration (2). While much is made of the financial problems of Millennials, 40% of US Gen Xers feel financially insecure, 38% have more debt than savings, and Gen X were by far the hardest hit by the recent ‘Great Recession’ or Global Financial Crisis (GFC), all of which means that they are going to be in the workforce for some time yet (3). Despite the fact that Generation X is placed to be the natural successors to retiring boomers, no one seems to be discussing how to manage their talent and mentor them into the C-suite.
So why are we so determined to cater to Millennials? It has been accepted that Millennials suffer from a reputation for lacking the drive for hard work and the skills to work effectively in a team (2), this coupled with a reported lack of loyalty to employers begs the question of why businesses are expending so many resources to chase and develop them over Generation X? The fact is that Millennials are far greater in number, in the US they number 62% of the workforce compared with Gen X’s meagre 29% (4), add to this their intimate knowledge of technology, and social media in particular, which makes them valuable in a world where knowledge capital and skills are determiners of organisational success. Squeezed between two much larger generations, Generation X doesn’t have the voice to be heard, but this doesn’t mean that they should be ignored.
In fact, Gen X has every right to feel bitter: they are stuck between a generation that won’t retire and give up access to the C-suite, and a generation that is being touted as the Next Big Thing, catered to with benefits and flexibility that Generation X has long fought for, while also being promoted past them. The fact is that Generation X is working in an environment where skilled Millennials are fast tracked in a bid to circumvent fears of impending skills shortages (4). Despite this focus on Millennials overtaking Generation X, it is still believed that Gen X will take over the C-suite before Millennials get there; however how their experiences will shape businesses in the medium to long term doesn’t seem to be a topic of conversation that most pundits are interested in having.