The Forgotten Generation: Gen X and the Great Resignation
Born between 1965 and 1980, Generation X seems to be perennially overlooked in discussions regarding work and their place in society. However, as more and more workers from the older Boomer generation retire, Gen Xers are beginning to step into roles left open by their predecessors. While Generation X might not be resigning at the rates of other groups, no generation has been absent throughout the Great Resignation phenomenon. Let’s review the experiences that shaped this underlooked, influential segment of our workforce and what the future of work looks like for Generation X.
The Gen X Experience
The 15 years that define Generation X include periods of important social and political change that significantly impacted the lives and values of this generation. Gen Xers would come to be known as one of the “least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history,” with parents divorcing at historic rates as both mom and dad worked in pursuit of an American Dream. Sometimes referred to as “latchkey kids” after the manner in which children were left to their own devices after school, keys to the front door worn around their necks, Gen Xers grew up to be entirely self-sufficient, resilient, and peer-focused.
The cohort that would come to be known as the MTV Generation grew up amid considerable economic uncertainty. For example, unemployment and inflation—often referred to as stagflation—persisted throughout the 1970s until President Ronald Reagan ushered in a new era of supply-side economics which helped to relieve the Recession of 1980. But, as it turned out, 1980 and beyond would be anything but stable for Gen X. It was stated in our last blog, Millennials on the Move: Generation Y and the Great Resignation, that Millennials are often regarded as the unluckiest generation in history, having entered the workforce in the midst of the Great Recession of 2008. However, it must be noted that Gen X was the first generation to be financially worse-off than their parents, in terms of retirement, wealth accumulation, cost of living, and upward mobility.
Gen Xers have lived through pivotal, life-shaping moments, including the stock market crash of 1987, the fall of Communism, the Gulf War, AIDS, the dot com crash of the early 2000s, 9/11, and many others. Then came the Great Recession, a period from 2007 to 2009 that saw one of the deepest downturns in the U.S. economy since World War II. Triggered by the collapse of the housing market, the recession was deeply traumatic for younger Gen Xers, who accounted for 75% of people who purchased their homes in 2000 or later—otherwise known as the heyday of the real estate bubble. After paying peak prices and taking on more mortgage debt than previous generations, Gen Xers ultimately lost 45% of their wealth by 2010, and many lost their homes entirely.
Little has changed in recent years. Gen Xers hold about six times more debt than their parents did at the same age, and they are still in their prime “debt-acquiring years,” carrying higher average balances than any other generation across all major debt categories except for personal loans. With children and aging parents, Gen Xers also tend to have larger households to support than the 2.5-person US standard, and thus spend the most on consumer goods and services.
Despite realizing a 50% increase in wealth in the 2nd quarter of 2021, Gen Xers hold about 28.6% of the nation’s wealth, a little more than half of the 51.4% held by Boomers. For comparison, Gen X only held 3.9% of the nation’s wealth in the first quarter of 2020. Data from the US Consensus Bureau also suggests that Gen Xers have been struggling with lost income throughout the pandemic. In October 2021, about 8.6 million Gen Xers reported that they found it very difficult to pay bills. This was the highest rate among any of the age groups surveyed by the Census. Thus, despite Gen X’s increase in wealth during the pandemic, financial uncertainties still remain.
Gen X Values and Beliefs
Gen Xers saw their fair share of global upheaval and insecurity growing up and, because of their behavior in response to these events, they were sometimes labeled as cynical and disaffected. Young Gen Xers did not view the world in quite the same way as their predecessors. The Gen X persona is consistently said to value self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and authenticity. These values can be seen in entertainment trends made popular by Gen Xers in the 1990s, like the TV sitcom “Friends” which epitomized young Gen Xers, and the alternative-rock boom led by Nirvana and other Seattle-based bands that glorified skepticism. Overall, Gen Xers also tend to be more liberal on social issues and represent more ethnic diversity than Boomers.
Importantly, especially in the context of work, Generation X desires both a healthy work-life balance and the security of a stable job. Unlike the Boomer generation, Gen X employees haven’t yet reached retirement age, and many feel they aren’t financially positioned to walk away from work quite yet. The most important consideration for many Gen Xers has been whether or not their current jobs are stable enough to support them through the last of their professional working years.
In 2019, Harvard Business Review speculated about whether or not companies were about to have a Gen X retention problem, due to the lack of promotions that were instead given to Millennials. Gen Xers also have some important expectations of employers. These include technology upgrades that allow them to do their work better, sufficient compensation and benefits to take care of their families and save for retirement, and a good work-life balance that will enable Gen X to continue to thrive. If any of these areas are compromised, Gen Xers won’t hesitate to look for new opportunities, and they aren’t afraid to quit jobs when they know something better is waiting for them.
Throughout 2021, Visier reported that employees aged 40-45 and 45-50, the younger portion of Gen Xers, have increased their resignation rates by more than 38%. Nonetheless, most other research conducted this year suggests that Gen Xers have been the least likely to leave their jobs throughout the Great Resignation, the least likely to have lost a job, and have been the best at adapting their current jobs to remote work. Thanks to the many years they’ve spent in the workforce, Gen Xers have a wisdom gained through experience that their younger generational counterparts do not. Also, given their average age, Generation X was less likely to have young children at home, sparing them the challenges that many Millennials had to manage.
Additionally, Gen X finds itself in a unique technological position: They can remember life without the internet but have still managed to gain mastery over it. Gen X witnessed huge technological advances, including the rise of personal computers and companies like Apple, IBM, and Microsoft. This gives many Gen Xers a deep appreciation of technology and what it can do in the workplace. In fact, the Adobe Future of Time Report found that the rate at which Gen Xers have quit a job due to bad technology increased 13 points over pre-Covid levels. As more Boomers retire and Gen Xers hopefully continue to move into management roles, Gen X’s embrace of technology will likely increase automation at work and continue advances in remote work options backed by technology.
How Gen X Is Impacting the Workplace
While the forgotten generation has been largely overlooked in current scholarship and research about the workplace, often caught between the Boomers and younger working generations, Gen X is still making their presence felt. In fact, many of the characteristics associated with this cohort make them ideally suited to the modern workplace. For starters, Gen Xers are adaptable—they largely recovered their wealth in the wake of the Great Recession and learned that company loyalty will only get you so far, jumping from job to job more than some might think. They also tend to communicate more directly than Millennials, which leads to more honest feedback and more measurable improvement in some cases.
When it comes to the future of work, Generation X has the unique ability to bridge the gap between old and new ways of working. Gen X has the technological know-how of younger generations and the conventional leadership skills of the older generation. This means that Gen Xers are skilled at identifying and developing new talent, breaking down organizational silos, and working with others to lead the execution of strategies that bring new ideas to the workplace.
Generation X is changing the future of work and companies should do whatever is necessary to retain these talented workers and allow them to become the digital leaders they are destined to be.