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Friday, July 23, 2010

Gen X: The Sandwich Generation

Media attention has for years been lavished upon the Baby Boomers, the massive demographic bulge born between 1946 and 1960 that is still dominating our culture and workplace. Eagles reunion tour tickets anyone?

The new hot topic for cultural observers is the next demographic boom, Gen Y or the Millennials, the children of the Boomers just now entering the workplace and unapologetically texting, instant-messaging and maintaining active social network lives.

In the middle, almost unforgotten and unhappy, toil the Gen Xers.

"Wake up corporations," Tamara Erickson, a Boston-based author and workplace consultant says of corporate North America's attitude to the less-numerous, but still critical sandwich generation. Boomer management "just assume" that the follow-on Generation have the same climb-the-corporate-ladder, keys-to-the-executive-washroom goals that they hold.

"I have so many Boomers that are just shocked when they find that Xers don't want to relocate, they simply can't fathom why that would be," she observers. "This whole idea that they don't want the promotion is kind of outside the realm of Boomer imagination." Bottom line: Boomers are taking the next generation for granted, if they even think of them at all.

She draws this conclusion from extensive workplace interviews that she has had with the cohort in the course of research for a new book on the career options and strategies for Gen Xers. The baby bust generation is poised to form an important management bridge between the retirement-bound Boomers and their offspring, but many Xers are disillusioned, bitter and looking to check out of corporate life.

"When I first started interviewing Gen Xers I was shocked," says Erickson. "I remember distinctly the first time I interviewed a Gen Xer about senior leadership positions and this person said, `Who would ever want those positions?' I said to him, 'Don't you think the company thinks you do?' He said, 'I have no interest in that, I'm going to leave.'

"I came to the conclusion that companies don't know this, they don't have any perception that these people don't want senior management positions and that they are planning to leave," she says.

Erickson says it is understandable that Generation X is not buying into the Boomer workplace worldview. As a group, they entered the workforce in the mid-80s. It wasn't just the music that was bad. Jobs were scarce as the more numerous, older Boomers had the first pickings. Xers also had less reverence for corporations as they were in their formative years when the first big waves of firings swept through the workforce, engulfing their parents or their parents' friends.

"I think that Xers are completely sane and I don't think at all that they are slackers or whiners because of factual conditions that have made it pretty sensible to have the views that they have," says Erickson, who has studied generations interacting at work for the past six years. "They faced a tough job market...while many people just 10 years older simply sailed into the workforce."

A typical Xer today, she observes, is now around 40 and contemplating moving up to senior management when the economy is slowing and still harbouring well-earned suspicions about the benevolence of employers.

To make matters worse, the group finds itself in the middle of a burgeoning love affair between Boomers and Millennials. "Most Xers find the Ys highly annoying," laughs Erickson, herself a Boomer. "I think the reason is that Xers did have a tough time and they did play by the rules because that was the only reason that they could hold onto their jobs and Ys are viewed as kind of getting away with murder.

"The other thing that we pick up in our qualitative interviews is the Boomers like them. I mean these are their kids. They remind them of their (own) kids," she says. "I think Boomers are a little more tolerant of Y kookiness."

Millennials' easy mastery of communications technology – whether it is used for work or play – is also showing up the next-oldest cohort. "I actually know companies that are hiring Ys and laying off older workers because they think they need to have that young technology on board."

Based on research from Erickson's company's Toronto-based partners, New Paradigm Research, Generation X have been found to be the most conservative in the workforce based on the fact that they had to play by the rules to prosper for much of their career. "Unfortunately, the Xers wind up being a solid core within companies, a little less willing to flex," she says.

The sandwich generation's dirty little secret, notes Erickson, is that the group is generally not much more comfortable with technology than their Boomer bosses. "Clearly there are many who are comfortable with technology, but if you are not, it is harder to admit it if you are an Xer. A Boomer can get away with it."

One thing is certain: the three-way generational tug-of-war is going to make for a really interesting next decade or so.


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