Generation X: Overcoming Growing Malcontent

Late on a Friday evening, while pecking my way toward completion of a white paper on veterans’ transition issues, the frustrated tones of a nearby couple drifted my way.  The topic of their conversation and the root cause of their consternation was the lack of growth opportunities both felt in their respective careers.  Both appeared to be in their early 40s.  The man felt stuck in his middle-management role at a regional financial services company, while the woman, a pediatrician, yearned for greater administrative responsibilities within a large medical conglomerate.  Yet chances for advancement, they lamented over their lattes, had all but disappeared.

In coaching veterans transitioning from military to civilian careers, similar refrains are common.  Seasoned Generation X leaders with nearly two decades of tactical and strategic experience are finding it increasingly difficult to find and land ever more competitive positions at upper echelons of organizations.  The result is higher comparative levels of career frustration and slipping engagement amongst the skilled and experienced members of this particular generation.  Add in the propensity for younger Millenials toward impatience with corporate hierarchies, and who are themselves building base levels of knowledge and experience as workforce advancement languishes, and it’s hardly a rosy picture for Generation X.

“Where is this exodus of Boomers we’ve heard so much about?” Robert questioned during a recent career advancement focus group session.

The economy has wreaked havoc with the plans of many Boomers, forcing them to put off retirement as their once plentiful nest eggs recover.  More than just the immediate financial impacts of a fluctuating market, however, has been the psychological unsettling of the mindset of the American worker.  Images of a long, secure retirement life have become blurred and uncertain for a majority of Boomers.  Fear of the unknown has incentivized an acceptance among many to work deeper into their sixties.  The shift in Boomer mentality has stagnated once reliable promotional opportunities and an influx of new leadership ideas into many of the most established Fortune 500 companies’ executive ranks.

Gen-Xers have been caught in the middle of this conflux of situations.  They’ve reached life stages where previously counted on promotions (and corresponding income increases) necessary to maintain their standards of living.  Increasingly, anxiety and even psychological panic begin to emerge, and engagement, loyalty, and commitment levels to organizations plot an inverse path with those fears.

There are some simple steps organizations can take to avoid the Generation X malaise, however.  These include:

Engage Gen-Xers in career coaching – When any employees are struggling to define what the career path in front of them looks like, it’s imperative that leaders actively engage them in career dialogue.  In the short-term, acknowledging the trials and frustrations impacting Generation X workers will build leadership credibility.  Quite simply, when genuine, it shows you care about your employees, not simply as a cog in the corporate gear, but as an individual with hopes, dreams, and aspirations.  Ensure you understand their motivations, their career goals, and their fears, and leverage this knowledge to cooperatively plan out a path for them.

Find and reward lateral opportunities for Gen-Xers – Let’s face it.  Within most organizations (at all career stages and within all generations) advancement opportunities are scarcer.  It’s the economy.  It’s the focus on increased efficiency.  It’s the propagation of technology.  But it’s a real issue that prompts strong leaders to seek out alternative opportunities for high potential employees.  Increasingly, these are not traditional promotions up the corporate ladder, but rather opportunities to move laterally within an organization to gain additional experience or skills, or simply to leverage within the organization the known skills of individuals in innovative and new areas.

Where many organizations falter in this regard, however, is in failing to recognize the need to adequately reward employees willing to make lateral moves.  If the only way to gain financially within your organization is to move up, lateral transfers will always be deemed second-class career options.  Instead, create incentive and reward policies that emphasize the benefits (individually and organizationally) for moving sideways within the organization.

Actively manage Boomer leaders as mentors and coaches to Gen-X – Are we going to see increasing retirements among Boomers?  Probably eventually, but the continuing economic challenges have done little to restore long-term confidence in our aging workforce that they can survive retirement.  So, for the time being, it’s safe to assume that retirement rates will continue at roughly the same rate they have been for the past several decades.  Oh, eventually the bubble will inevitably burst, but until it does, Boomers are here to stay in the landscape of the American workplace.

Rather than simply continue business as usual, however, progressive organizations are building formalized mentoring requirements (with the necessary incentives and accountability) for senior leaders.  Boomers who choose to remain with these organizations are seeing their accountabilities shift from strategic business leaders to strategic people developers.  They spend less time huddled over spreadsheets and profit and loss statements and more time on building the leadership capacity of the next generation of executives.


2 thoughts on “Generation X: Overcoming Growing Malcontent

  1. This is important information that I wish all companies would embrace. Listen to and validate the employee’s concerns, then find ways for them to express their creativity and experience in collaboration with other departments. Smart employees are trainable and love to learn. Most companies are not taking advantage of this – even though it would save them money in the long run!

    Ditto for Gen Y employees! Thanks for posting such great information from the Employee Development freak @viravani.

    1. The applicability of these ideas to Gen Y employees is a good point, Valerie. These are universal steps that can be taken regardless of the age or generational perspective of the individual employee. It’s more pronounced, I believe, for Gen-Xers due to the unique sandwiching of that generation between reluctant retirement-aged workers and a growing cadre of skilled, experienced Millenials.

      Thanks for the comment!

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