To Jan Brady, it always seemed like everyone else was getting all the attention. If it wasn’t little sister Cindy, then it was, of course, big sister “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”
Similar to this classic example of “middle child syndrome” from “The Brady Bunch,” it often seems to Gen Xers that they are caught in the middle these days. For, while everyone’s busy talking about Baby Boomers and/or Millennials, members of Generation X are left there, ignored and sandwiched in between, wondering, “Hey, What about us!?”
Having entered the workforce during tough economic times, many Gen Xers, unfortunately, missed the boat that Millennials are about to set sail on. Gen Xers showed up on time, wore a suit, didn’t ask for perks, waited years for that big promotion that never came, and did all the right things…only to now find Baby Boomers tripping over them to shake hands with the GenY/Millennials.
So what does a Gen Xer gotta do to get some attention around here? Like a middle child who sees his or her younger sibling reaping the benefits of being the “shiny new thing” — and with the Boomer generation still calling the shots (for now) – perhaps it’s time to give Generation X a little love
So now, let’s dig in to post #4 as generational expert Brad Szollose and I discuss the Top Four Things that Gen Xers need to do to avoid being the Jan Brady of the office:
1. Take back your power
As their label suggests, when we Baby Boomers came along (born post-WWII between 1946-1964), there ended up being a LOT of us. In many cases, as we pointed out in previous posts, at work we were expected to just sit there, shut up, and take anything and everything our bosses threw at us…literally. Todd had a boss throw a box of pens at him; and I once had a boss throw a punch at me. So when Gen X (born between 1965-1979) entered the workforce, they, too, were expected to pay the same dues: work hard, keep their mouth shut, take the abuse, show up early, stay late, obey the rules…and maybe, some day, when the big bosses felt you’ve earned it, they’ll give you a title and a corner office.
But then suddenly, Gen X, after a decade of putting their heads down and doing what they were told, after riding out the recession and waiting patiently for the economic ship to right itself…along came the Millennials (born between 1980-2000) saying, “Excuse us, please…you had your chance…now it’s our turn.” Gen X, outnumbered and beaten down by one of the worst economies since the Great Depression, found themselves pushed aside and drowned out by the more demanding, more vocal, and more favored Millennials. Regardless of generation, every employee desires the basics: decent working conditions, fair treatment, fair compensation, etc…, but the Millennial generation (as discussed in our previous post) is the first to walk into companies saying, “If you are NOT going to pay me what my college diploma is worth, enough to pay off my student loans and to move out of my parents’ basement, then I want perks: a laptop and smartphone, flexible hours, free snacks and lunches, and paid time off to help make the world a better place.”
Boomers at first thought this was outrageous entitlement; after all it took them twenty years to earn any of those kinds of perks. But eventually they realized it was just smart business. Pay them less, but make ‘em happy in other ways. Or they’ll just walk out the door. And as this is going on, Gen X is sitting there with their mouths hanging open thinking, “Are you kidding me? I was lucky to even HAVE a job…and they’re asking for all these things…and getting them?”
But here’s the situation, Gen Xers: You may not realize this (especially those of you who have been so beaten down), but with the economy finally improving and with your having paid your dues, you’ve earned some serious clout – and your time has come. Being halfway between Boomers and Millennials, there’s a good chance that you possess many of the most valuable qualities of both. You have the work ethic and experience of a Boomer, combined with the flexibility and adaptability of a Millennial.
So step up to leadership, and take back your power. Sharpen your communication skills, and enhance your influencing skills. Seek out feedback and mentorship from those above you, and be willing to learn from those below you. As more and more Baby Boomers retire with each passing day, you want to position yourself for the next level and the next challenge. The days of “sitting and waiting to be called” are over. You’ve been waiting for your chance to seize the day…and that day has come.
2. Bridge the Generational Divide
As Todd and I are Baby Boomers writing from our own first-hand experiences and perspectives, we wanted to seek out the viewpoint of a Gen Xer so we reached out to Jeff Schwartzman, the head of Learning & Development for industry-leading financial services firm Liquidnet to get his thoughts on the subject. Jeff commented that while he often thought of himself as more of a Millennial than a Gen Xer, after interacting with a number of his organization’s Millennial interns, it quickly made him realize how far apart he was in so many ways. And yet, he also realized that there was so much he could learn from them. He emphasized that the main strength that Gen Xers bring to the table is that they are well-suited and well-positioned to bridge the generational divide as a result of possessing many of the best traits of each of the generations that came before and after:
“Gen Xers are incredibly important to the productivity of an organization. They have the years of real-world business experience that Millennials don’t have, and yet the openness and flexibility in their mindset to innovate and implement new ideas in ways that many Boomers may not. And as more and more Boomers retire or become farther removed from the latest trends and technologies, and while less-experienced Millennials are still getting their feet wet, the Gen Xers who have been patiently waiting their turn are now ready to stake their claim and step up to leadership.”
Building on Jeff’s thoughts, Generation X, having the very best strengths of BOTH generations, and with hiring picking up, will be more and more in demand as more and more Boomers retire, leaving a huge leadership gap. So with their unique understanding of both the old and the new, the past and the present, members of Gen X are well-positioned to carve out their own paths.
3. Pump up your ambition and step up to leadership
Several recent studies have found that many members of Generation X (and even more Millennials) do not want the pressure and responsibility of a leadership position. Is it fear? Is it a lack of ambition? Or is it a mindset of embracing comfortable stability and avoiding the target on the back that comes with a leadership role. Gen Xers, especially, who have lived through the trauma of seeing so many of their peers unceremoniously laid off and are still somewhat shell-shocked, often think and feel, “Why bother?”
But, as mentioned, there is a leadership void going on out there, and the gap is going to get even bigger as Boomers retire. And, because the size of their generational pool is smaller than the number of Boomers dropping out of the workforce, there will be less competition for those openings. So it’s time to use this situation to your advantage. Instead of shying away, be proactive, change your mindset, and step up to the challenge. Your Millennial coworkers are certainly not going to be shy about speaking up for what they want, so you shouldn’t be, either. As Jeff said previously, “stake your claim.” You’ve earned it.
Most traditional companies still see age and experience as two of the key factors in making management hiring decisions. If you are being interviewed for more senior roles, be open about how much you have learned, the experiences you’ve gained, the results you’ve produced, and how you are well-positioned to navigate and negotiate between the three generations. Prove to them that you can handle the Big Chair.
And if you have an opportunity to seek out any management training or leadership development, do it NOW. A Harvard study found that most companies do not put their people through any kind of leadership development until they are in the 40’s, while many of them have been in leadership positions since they were in their 30’s. This, basically, means that they’ve had ten years to operate without any training for this role…and to develop and reinforce all kinds of potentially bad habits! Don’t let this happen to you.
4. Move up…or move on
If you have paid your dues, worked your way up the corporate ladder, and are still being left behind for one promotion after another, perhaps it is time to take a page from the Millennial handbook and move on. Millennials proactively seek out work environments that respect their individual contributions and organizational cultures that treat them as equal partners in the success of the company –- regardless of age or title.
And while loyalty to a company is an admirable trait to have, we all know that company loyalty to employees has, in most cases, gone the way of the dinosaur. As Dan Pink put it in his book, “Free Agent Nation,” even when employed by an organization, we are all, essentially, free agents these days.
And while there used to be a stigma about leaving a job before you’ve been there two or three years, those days are gone. While you don’t want to be a “job-hopper,” you also need to look out for Number One. So if you have maxed out in your current role and all signs seem to be leading towards a dead end, there is no better time than now to make your move.
I was recently attending a Vistage event that was being held at a brand new law firm when Amy came running up to me to say hi. One of the top IP lawyers with one of the top law firms in the country, I couldn’t imagine what she was doing there, hosting the event. “I quit three months ago,” she blurted out, “and I couldn’t be happier!” Turns out she had been disgruntled at her old firm for years, but didn’t even realize it. After 17 years and millions of dollars generated, she was still being kept at bay for partnership. She just figured this was all part of the partnership promotion process: waiting and suffering. But something I had said over a year ago made her realize that something was missing in her high-powered career: appreciation and recognition.
So she left her prestigious, old-school law firm for a small, new firm that immediately put her on the fast track to partnership. She looked younger, happier, and was doing better than she could have ever imagined. And it wasn’t the money; it was a sense of appreciation for working her tail off that she had been needing. So just as Amy did, if this is how you are feeling and what you’ve been thinking, it may be time. Though it’s never easy, give yourself permission, be proactive, push yourself beyond your comfort zone — and the safety and security of the status quo — and explore the world of possibilities that exists out there. Not only will you be glad you did, but you’ll ask yourself, “What took me so long?”
In closing, as a Gen Xer you have struggled through some tough and turbulent times, and never got to share in the glory years of the Baby Boomers. But on the other hand, there is no time like the present, and with things finally picking up out there, it is finally your turn to shine.
This wraps up our four-part series on generational issues in the workplace; I hope you enjoyed it. My sincere thanks to Brad Szollose for contributing his expertise and his experience: Brad, you are, indeed, the master of your domain!