It isn’t easy being a member of Generation X. At just 20% of the workforce, employees aged 32 to 49 are overshadowed by Boomers, who are usually their bosses (at least for the moment), and outnumbered by Millennials, who are nipping at their heels and hogging the limelight.
Often laden with debt, since many borrowed heavily for college and bought their first houses at the peak of the real estate bubble, Xers seem to feel they’re just slogging along in the middle, wondering if they’ll ever get a chance to move up.
That could be why, when Chicago staffing and recruiting firm Addison Group studied all three generations across hundreds of companies, 61% of Gen Xers said others at work perceive them as “slow” workers. More than half (56%) said they’re regarded as less “fun” than any other age group. Yet companies concerned with retaining key employees would be foolish to take Xers for granted. More than half describe themselves as “innovative,” “problem solvers,” and “team players”—traits that keep getting more marketable as the job market livens up.
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The oldest Xers turn 50 next year, so they’ve been around long enough to have accumulated a heap of knowledge, and they’re eager to pass it along. Looking for managers who will nurture young talent? Almost two-thirds of Xers (62%) say they “want to be mentors, and 40% see themselves as teachers. That’s more than any other generation,” notes Thomas Moran, Addison Group’s CEO who, at 49, is a Gen Xer himself.
Xers are also at an age where their experience qualifies them for senior management jobs, and they’ll be in demand as Boomers keep retiring.
At $3-billion-a-year software firm Infor, for instance, “we have 13,000 employees, and a lot of them are Gen Xers, because it’s the age group that now has 15 to 20 years’ experience in tech, which is extremely valuable to us,” says Charles Phillips, a former Oracle co-president and now Infor’s CEO. “We pay close attention to developing their careers, especially their leadership skills.”
That’s smart, says Moran, since the Addison Group survey shows that “professional advancement is hugely important for Gen Xers. They want to feel that their employer is invested in their success, and that there’s a clear path forward.”
Want to make sure Gen X talent sticks around? The study says that—besides more money, which all three generations gave as the No. 1 reason they’d consider changing jobs—“Gen Xers’ highest-ranked reason for leaving is not seeing a way to advance beyond their current role,” Moran says. “If they can’t move up, they’ll move on.”
As for why this middle generation thinks the other two see it as boring, the survey didn’t ask. But Infor’s Phillips has a plausible theory. “Don’t forget, these are the people who invented grunge rock, and some of them were part of the first big tech boom back in the late ’90s,” he points out. “They were used to thinking of themselves as the cool kids.”
At 55, Phillips is on the younger end of the Boomer age range, so he gets it. “We live in such a youth-obsessed culture,” he observes. “Once a whole new crop of cool kids comes along, it’s always an adjustment.”