In the great conversation about the coming talent shortage in the United States, much of the discussion has revolved around the 80 million or so baby boomers and their impending retirement. But as a few pundits have pointed out, the far lower numbers of Generation X professionals available to replace them is the other part of this equation. (Indeed, if there were an equivalent number of Gen Xers, this essentially would not be an issue.) Given this situation, it’s important for enterprises to understand the mindset of Gen Xers so they can recruit, develop and retain them.
But who, exactly, belongs in Generation X?
When addressed in the context of the talent market, this generation often is lumped in with the millennials (or Generation Y), mainly because these two groups are presumed to have similar traits, values and life experiences.
Both age cohorts, says conventional wisdom, easily grasp technology and can multitask with little difficulty. Moreover, Generations X and Y aren’t as interested in high income and status as the boomers, preferring things such as work-life balance, development opportunities and career flexibility.
For the moment, though, let’s put aside the veracity of these claims and examine Generation X as a demographic category. Just what makes a Gen Xer a Gen Xer? The most obvious answer is their birth years.
Where the general consensus is that the baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, no such agreement exists for Generation X. Most place the first members of this group in the mid-1960s, when birth rates started to fall drastically.
But the year in which X ends and Y starts varies wildly, ranging from 1975 to 1985. Thus, the number of Generation Xers fluctuates wildly, with a 30 million-plus figure at the low end of the spectrum and a boomer-esque 70 million-plus on the high end.
If you split the difference (in terms of both time frames and high-low estimates), you end up with around 50 million individuals who fall into this generation. Yet, although it might be satisfying to simply adopt the statistical mean, it’s lazy demography and still doesn’t tell us much about who Gen Xers are.
Before it was even a formal age cohort, though, “Generation X” was a pop culture term. Can the cultural implications of this category tell us more about the people within it?
Not really. To begin with, “Generation X” actually was coined in 1964 by British writer Jane Deverson to describe a particular group of young people who no longer bought into traditional social mores.
It was subsequently used as the title of a punk rock band that included a young Billy Idol (himself a boomer) in the mid-1970s. The first time it was applied broadly to an actual generation was in the late 1980s by Canadian author Douglas Coupland, who was, in fact, referring to individuals born in the late 1950s and early 1960s — the youngest boomers.
Further, it was adopted by the general population at the beginning of the 1990s to describe a particular disaffected, cynical and ironic outlook that allegedly was prevalent among “twentysomethings” of the time. These individuals frequently were described with expedient personality archetypes such as slackers and nerds, not unlike the hippies of the boomer generation. (All boomers were hippies, right?)
These characterizations of the Generation X zeitgeist not only were delineated primarily by boomers, but they also left out the millions of teenagers and even preteens who would eventually come to be viewed as part of this group.
Thus, there are glaring problems with this category. “Generation X” is essentially a derogatory term employed early on by late boomers to initially describe themselves and then the people who came after them. Of course, there also is the issue of inconsistent numbers.
Additionally, and not surprisingly, Gen Xers are much less likely to buy into their own category than the boomers or millennials. And if they don’t, then why should anyone else?
What, then, are the consequences of all this for how enterprises view their Generation X personnel and formulate development strategies around them?
First and foremost, any learning solution should not be explicitly Generation X-oriented, that is, entirely based on this group’s perceived preferences. For one thing, these take a monolithic view of a group that’s made up of highly diverse individuals. Despite the fact that most of them might be proficient with technology, not all of them will favor e-learning over classroom delivery. Because of this multiplicity of viewpoints, learning modalities must be similarly assorted.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that priorities change. Although it might be somewhat accurate to say Gen Xers value development opportunities much more than income, this could change as people in this generation move up the ranks — typically, time and interest in learning decline in relation to progress through the corporate hierarchy — and as more of them become homeowners and begin to put their own children through college.
Finally, learning professionals who deal with succession planning and leadership development initiatives should come up with strategies based on retirement projections and the number of qualified personnel and high potentials for their specific enterprise and industry, not on broad generational categories.
Instead of asking questions such as “How many baby boomers does our company have right now?” consider how many senior staff the organization will lose to retirement in the next five years.
Generations are essentially tools of cultural convenience, which help people try to make sense of their world. But despite the number of academic books and articles published about them, they aren’t scientific.
If you build learning strategies on something as elusive as “Generation X,” don’t be surprised if the success of these initiatives is likewise elusive.