Working with Generation X
I am absolutely fascinated with the psychology of “generations” and how their distinct personalities shape the workplace. In some organizations, you’ll see an age gap of nearly 50 years between the oldest and youngest employees. There is a broad range of perspectives, needs and attitudes floating around the office. Today’s workplace is most definitely a multi-generational one – and each generation has its own set of expectations, needs, values and working styles. In the news you’ll hear a ton of stories about the work ethic of the Baby Boomer generation and even more stories about the entitlement of the Millenials or Generation Y. But what about the “Jan Brady” of generations? You rarely, if ever, hear much about the middle child – my generation – Generation X.
You can find us Gen X’ers tucked in between the Boomers and the Millennials, occupying an ever-shrinking percentage of the current workforce. Our generation is made up of individuals born between the late 60s and the early 80s – before what we know of as the 80’s really got started. We represent the pop culture of the 70s and are often referred to as the ‘latch-key’ kids – those that were left alone at home because both parents (if you still had two parents) were working. This is a quick, shorthand explanation why most X’ers have an independent, resourceful and adaptable approach to work. Full disclosure – I was neither a child of divorce nor an actual latchkey kid, so my experience wasn’t 100% in line with what many consider the norm.
Gen X’ers are described as possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, a do-it-yourself attitude and, in contrast to the generations before them, the ability to embrace change in the workplace. We are career-oriented but place a stronger emphasis on family time and strive for a good work–life balance. We enjoy freedom and autonomy – to work to live rather than live to work, which can cause friction with Boomers who equate this approach with someone difficult to manage, the antithesis of their ideal of the “good worker”. Their ideal of the individual who works long hours, dedicated to their job first and foremost is equally alien to an X’er.
We were brought up in an era of technological and social change; Wozniak and Jobs were working in their garage when we were children, but by the time we were preparing to graduate college (a task taking more than four years for us – another change from the previous generation) Jeff Bezos had moved into that proverbial garage and was figuring out how to sell books on something called the “internet”. The Boomer preference for a rigid, work-centric approach didn’t fit in with the Gen-X need to embrace diversity, rapid change and creative input.
Understanding how Gen X looks at work and where it fits into their lives (note that I’m just talking about the Boomer/X’er dichotomy here; I’ll save the Millenials for another day) is key to successfully working with them. With that in mind, here are 3 important working styles for the X generation:
Gen X’ers need the time and space to complete projects and assignments on their own time and in their own way. X’ers don’t want over-your-shoulder, in-your-face managers who constantly check what they’re doing. Perhaps as a result of their latchkey childhood, these workers are not used to being closely supervised and are remarkably good at working on their own. I never had a problem with making sure my manager was up to speed with the status of my projects, but friction could pop up quickly if I ran into someone who insisted upon those updates at a particular day and time, especially if there was no real need for the update.
Spend one-on-one time with these employees to create relationships and foster trust. Emphasize their accomplishments and results rather than the methods they used to achieve them. Include them in decision-making — they’re problem-solvers. Finally, if you want something done, give it to an X’er and get out of their way. They’ve been self-managing from a young age. I loved being given a project; a due date and the freedom do things my own way. Constantly being course-corrected by a manger that didn’t trust the process was a surefire way to get me riled up.
To Gen X, workspace is very important – they define their success in the corporation by type and location of their office. Most Gen X’ers go into the office to work with their colleagues, to get things done, to talk to their manager about projects and sometimes, hide in their office. I cherished the ability to work in my cubicle and think peacefully: no kids, no employees and no bosses – just me and my work.