You Don’t Need to Know Algebra to Know What X Equals in this Equation!

April 21, 2015


If you’re following the chatter about workplace dynamics, you’ve probably noticed a lot of analysis and speculation about Boomers vs. Millennials. Is it better to be tech savvy or a team player? Adaptable or accomplished? Creative or conventional? How do you engage and retain Millennials? How do you help Boomers stay relevant and comfortable in a changing professional landscape?


Blah, blah, blah, I say. Enough already on this tack. Why? Because focusing your efforts on these distinct, supposedly worrisome groups, you’re missing a huge chance to make a real impact—with Gen X. Who? What? Have you forgotten about Gen X? Guess what: they’ve noticed!


The reality is, the majority of your Millennials aren’t in it for the long haul. It’s unlikely that they’ll be with your company for many years. Or the next company either. You know who else won’t be giving you much longevity? Boomers.


Before I go any further—and get myself in a heap of trouble—let me disclaim. I’m not suggesting that either of these groups should be ignored or dismissed—or that my broad generalizations apply to everyone; only that with so much attention on Millennials and Boomers lately, leaders forget that there is a large population or workers who have the potential to make significant contributions to their company.


What do we know about Gen X? Right now, they are in the age range of mid-30s to early 50s. They make up about 30% of the workforce, with that number growing every time a Boomer retires. They are likely established in a career and ready to put down some roots if the soil is receptive. They may or may not be in a management role, but we know they can’t all be. They are, in a word, opportunity. Your opportunity if you invest in them. Here’s how:  


Acknowledgement. Millennials are widely know to thrive on feedback and praise, whereas Gen Xers are more likely to consider being competent and getting paid to do their job enough. This does not mean you should forego showing them appreciation. You may not deliver it in the same way as you would with the younger generations, but it is still a necessary component of your communication. Consider using our Tell Us About You form to find out how they prefer to be recognized—and then acting on it.


Growth. Not everyone wants the natural progression of their career to culminate in a leadership role. Many in this generation take pride in their craft and would rather earn a senior level position within their department where they can continue to hone their skills and pass on their expertise to their junior colleagues. Traditional thinking considers the next step to be a promotion to manager, but, instead of giving them a hoist up the ladder, you may be more successful if you give them a way to step out: to be the specialist, the go-to, and the mentor. (Incidentally, this can also alleviate the sense that the only way to achieve career advancement is to patiently wait for someone to retire.


Many Gen Xers are at an age when they need some liberties in their work schedules—because of family responsibilities or changing life circumstances. Others are simply evaluating their priorities and concluding that work is just one factor. Does this mean they are less loyal or reliable? Not at all. By giving them the choice to work on their terms (within reason), you’re freeing up the pressure from a rigid schedule and inviting increased productivity—because now when they’re at work, their minds are, too, and not elsewhere.    


One of the consequences of Boomers retiring is that they often take their knowledge with them when they leave. In some cases this can be catastrophic; in others it just results in inefficiencies and time lost getting back up to speed. You can prevent this, in part, by creating an environment where Gen Xers want to stay and become the next seasoned team members who know all the ins and outs. (Hint: you can start with the recommendations above to lay that groundwork.) Next, encourage them to seek out that closely held know-how and own it themselves.


How do I know all of this? Well, today, I turned 46 and I am in the heyday of my career. I work for a company that values my work and shows it. I have been able to grow in a role that at one time didn’t seem like it had a next step. I work a modified schedule that balances focused responsibilities with a weekly dose of frolicking in the heathers.


And, because I am so satisfied with what my job (and company) is offering, I’ve stayed longer here than anywhere else. I not only have seniority, but I also know a lot of history that makes me (somewhat) indispensable. Yes, this is my story, but it’s also the story of many of my peers. So, take a second look at Gen X—we’re here and we can be your greatest assets!  

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