By Stephanie Hammerwold
Print magazines and online publications are filled with articles about millennials in the workplace. If it’s not them, then there are pages and pages dedicated to the struggles of baby boomers as they reach retirement age and continue to work. I recently read an article that had long descriptions of both generations and the silent generation (those who preceded the boomers). When it came to generation X, there was one, simple sentence that mentions how gen Xers don’t like to work collaboratively. Really? That’s how to sum up my whole generation?
All the generation talk that permeates the media has made me think about my own generation as well as how we discuss generations in life and in the workplace. Where is generation X in all this conversation? And is it useful to put so much energy into publishing article after article about millennials and baby boomers while generation X is relegated to middle-child status? Should talking about generations even be a thing?
A Reflection on Gen X
I am part of generation X, which is the age group born roughly from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. Many of us were latchkey kids who grew up in single-parent households or in a family where both parents worked. We still had freedom to wander the neighborhood without parental supervision, and we saw the advent of video games. By the time I was in college, generation X was branded as being cynical, disenfranchised and feeling adrift. Music by bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and those that were part of the Riot Grrrl movement came to represent the way we felt.
I remember graduating college with a sense of idealism—I would rather do something meaningful with my life than have a big paycheck. When the reality of struggling to find a job and to make enough to pay off student loans became a reality, my sense of idealism started to change. After some time in the nonprofit world where I made paychecks barely big enough to cover my basic expenses and two years in grad school, I ended up in the for-profit corporate world. When I look around at my fellow gen Xers, I see similar paths; however, unlike me, many of my cohort have also taken on spouses and children and have settled into a balance between corporate life and suburban family life.
Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost that idealism that was born out of our childhood independence and teenage angst. We became more worried about paying for our kids’ college educations and our own retirements than saving the world. And with this, we have found ourselves sandwiched between two generations clamoring for all the attention while we just try to make it through the day, so we can go home to complain about how no one ever talks about us.
In a 2010 Pew Research study, researchers asked adults if they thought their generation was unique. According to the study, “about six-in-ten Boomers and Millennials said yes. But only about half of Gen Xers said the same. Among those who did, there was very little consensus about why they are distinctive” (Taylor & Gau).
Perhaps this is why we are often left out of the conversation. We do not want to be easily distilled down to a few traits, and we see our evolution as part of a bigger lifecycle rather than as simply a generation thing. I think what gets under my skin the most about all the generational talk is that it makes me want to shout, “You aren’t special! These were, are and will be my struggles too!”
Why Generation Talk Misses the Point
I wonder how much value there is in understanding differences between the generations. I share the view that 50% of my generation holds that there is nothing unique about generation X. Perhaps that is what makes us unique…or maybe not. While I think there are certain ways we work that differ depending on our age, I think those differences are more a product of our present age than our specific generation.
For example, it seems to be a common refrain to hear how millennials struggle to find jobs and how they are trying to bring a change-the-world approach to their work. Sound familiar? And just as baby boomers realize they will probably need to keep working because they do not have the money to retire, gen Xers will most likely be facing the same struggle when we get to retirement age.
There is something to take away from understanding generational differences, especially when we look at how different age groups were influenced by technology and various parenting styles and how these things affect them in the workplace. But in the bigger picture, much of what we talk about in terms of traits specific to generations may instead be attributed to various phases of life in general as outlined in my example above.
As another example, I remember entering the workforce in my early twenties and hearing boomers complain about how young people acted entitled and did not understand the value of working hard to get ahead. Again, sound familiar? These are the same things we hear about millennials today. In a few decades, will we be talking about millennials and their “unique” struggle to have the finances to retire in their 60s?
In a way, this is the American lifecycle that took its roots in the 20th century. We have left behind a time where people worked at the same company for their entire life, were able to afford a nice home and retired with comfortable pensions. These are not struggles unique to any of the generations.
Maybe talking about generations is for people who believe that these categories are worthwhile in understanding our experience of the world. As someone who does not see my “generational” struggles as unique, it is easy to see why I would shy away from generation talk.
“The Answer is, I Don’t Know”
Perhaps some of you may be reading this and thinking, “Oh, she is so gen X!” My rambling thoughts and lack of adherence to labels may be no more than a representation of the characteristics of generation X. Maybe I really am just a product of my generation, and I once again feel as though I am adrift, but this time it is in a sea of social media sites and new tech as I listen to the endless droning on about millennials. Maybe I am just like the gen Xers we were in the 90s. We just wanted to be heard and to have someone recognize our struggle. Now, leave me alone so I can drink cheap wine, listen to Pearl Jam and reflect on my dwindling 401(k). Where’s my flannel?
Taylor, Paul and George Gao. “Generation X: America’s neglected ‘middle child.’” Pew Research Center, 5 June 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.