Being Gen X (Part I)

It wasn’t easy growing up Gen X; ‘rocking out’ to Wham, flapping around in parachute pants, pretending you cared what happened on 90210. Stuck between Baby Boomer parents and Millennial kids, Gen Xers have matured into a new, less blow-dried, set of challenges. And some sweet ass benefits too…

What about me?

On a really good day, Gen X might be remembered. On a typical day, most will rush right past us as they breathlessly gush about Millennials and either wax nostalgically about the hippie ideals of the Boomers or bitterly vilify them for bankrupting the future. On a bad day, Gen X will be called the Forgotten or Middle Child or Slacker Generation and described as cynical and entitled, compared with the world-shaping Boomers and the tech-blessed Millennials.

So what happened to Gen X? Will we ever get our day in the sun?

A lot of Gen X’s bad PR comes from our size. Gen X is much smaller than the Boomers, who were the progeny of an era when people screwed like bunnies having survived the horrors of WWII and enjoyed booming economies in places like the US where they now number over 74 million  The Millennials are set to overtake Boomers in 2019 as their numbers, at least in the US, grow to 73 million while the Boomers begin their inevitable decline (72 million at that stage). Gen X, by comparison, has already peaked at 66 million and won’t outnumber the Boomers until 2028.   

If actual generational warfare were to break out, Gen X would get its ass handed to it.

As Gen X has moved into middle age, it has shed the worst of its unfair labels. You’re more likely to hear the terms “entitled” and “slacker” directed at Millennials these days. This is probably because the punters that commentate on these things are middle-aged (don’t look at me…) and young people have always been accused of being entitled slackers. Gen X’s street cred has also been helped along over the years by producing uber cool peeps like Kurt Cobain, Quentin Tarantino and Barack Obama.  

All grown up, Gen X has adopted the best of both the Boomer and Millennial traits. Naturally pragmatic, self-reliant and outcomes focused, Gen X raised itself while their Boomer parents were off protesting. Gen X doesn’t need coddling, hand-holding or the constant reassurance Millennials crave.

Gen X is happy to quietly get on with the job, while they move into upper management roles as Boomers finally retire.

Gen Xers understand technology too. We grew up as computers were sprouting up in households. The sound of a modem screeching at the phone, desperate for a connection, is deeply embedded in Gen Xer’s collective hippocampus. Gen X has adapted well to emerging technologies. We learned to type and electronically file when computers entered the workplace, we lugged around brick-size mobile phones (for our younger readers, we mean literally brick-size) and dutifully signed up for Hotmail accounts and Myspace pages before Google and Facebook took over the world. As Gen X moves up in the world, we bring both leadership experience and adaptiveness to technological innovation. As Peter Keseric points out:

Millennial Mark Zuckerberg didn’t hire a millennial class-mate or an old school Baby Boomer to run Facebook when it was blowing up, he hired a Gen Xer. 

Sure, But Who Really Gives a Toss about Generations?

There is a lot of rubbish written about generations. Data-based projections can quickly deteriorate into horoscope-type generalisations when ‘experts’ overreach. More sensible use of demographics can tell us a lot about how people born around the same time see the world and how they’ll likely behave.

Generations matter because they tell us what part of the lifecycle an age cohort is in and what events shaped their worldview.  Baby Boomers (born around 1946-1964 and aged 54-72 in 2018) are at the end of their careers or are retired.

You’re not going to find a Baby Boomer rocking out at Coachella or posting smashed avocado pics on Instagram. They’re more interested in retirement investments, health insurance and slimline suppositories.

As each generation comes of age, their worldview is shaped by events and developments around them. Millennials (born around 1980-1996 and aged 22-38 in 2018) came of age with mobile devices and social media. These Digital Natives see the world as fast-moving, malleable and innovation driven. They are comfortable moving at the breakneck speed of digital technology and are entrepreneurial by nature.

Marketers and salespeople go nuts over these insights. For them, understanding how people think and how they behave is pure gold in the quest to sell people more shit. Governments use these demographics for everything from health policy to town planning, defence forces use it for recruiting, corporations use it to train better managers, and politicians use it to understand voting behaviour.

Generation demographics are also handy for helping to understand what lies ahead. In Part II of this post, we look at where next for Gen X and how it can get ahead of the curve.

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