Rising Tides Don’t Lift All Ships – The Millennial Effect on Generation X in the Workplace

The wave of Millennials washing onto the shores of the American workplace should have caused an ocean swell, lifting Generation X into the leadership positions we’ve spent the past thirty years working toward. Instead, in the Baby Boomers’ rush to greet and accommodate their younger Mini-Me’s, a great tsunami has crashed upon the X’ers, leaving us still stagnant in roles we’ve held for nearly a decade.

In a Forbes article by Wes Gay, who has built a career around “finding and keeping great Millennial talent,” EY’s Americas Recruiting Leader, Dan Black, is quoted as saying, “It’s a big generation in relation to the Gen X’ers. Now that boomers are retiring in bigger numbers, the math doesn’t work.”

I call bullshit. We’re a generation accustomed to doing more with less. We were the folks working ourselves to the bone when Boomer-run companies downsized in the 90’s, requiring that fewer of us do more work for the same rate of pay, often without overtime. We complained a little, but we did it – and most of us got really good at it. In fact, I would argue that, as a whole, Generation X is better at “heads down, asses up” work than any generation currently representing the workforce (although, the older Millennials are pretty badass, too). We’re accustomed to productivity sans redundancy and don’t sacrifice quality or service when eliminating unnecessary layers of management from our organizations.

This is not to say the Millennial cream of the crop couldn’t rise with us. In fact, we welcome it! By and large, we identify closely with the older Millennial bunch (born in the 1980’s) and recognize the value they contribute to companies and to society as a whole. However, if recruiters continue to look solely at Millennials for leadership roles, especially the newer graduates (born in the 1990’s), they risk putting lesser qualified people in high risk roles, just for the sake of filling the role with “a Millennial with a college degree.” The costs, in the long run, are more mistakes to clean up and more expensive workplace course corrections. Acknowledging Generation X’s contribution – and rewarding us with the promotions we’ve worked so hard for – means ensuring you’ll put people in place willing to mentor and groom our Millennial successors, likely saving corporations billions over a relatively short period of time.

Remember, too, that a lot of us are still supporting our younger Millennial children and starting to care for our aging Boomer parents. We’re the generation who needs that higher wage bracket, yet we’re being overlooked in favor of our inexperienced, book-educated children. What message are we sending this new group of workers? This: after 30 years of back breaking dedication, companies won’t be there for you in your hour of need. You are just a number, just a skin sack of energy to be exploited until you burn out, then replaced with a newer skin sack. You will be cast off as though you were never there. 

Not exactly a recipe for loyalty.

Whatever happened to age discrimination laws?

When the Baby Boomers started flooding the labor market in the 1960’s, the aging Silent Generation wasn’t happy with the competition and discrimination they faced from these young bucks, so they enacted the ADEA. This law protected workers over 40 from exclusion based, essentially, on the fact that they weren’t Boomers. Fast forward to 2016 and we have hundreds of HR professionals like Wes Gay who are building careers expressly around discriminating against any candidate who isn’t a Millennial.

And corporations embrace it!

Part of the problem is that the Boomers don’t identify with us. Generation X has earned a reputation of being “difficult” to work with and we can’t seem to shake the label. We’re known for being realists, which flies in the face of the Boomers’ idealism. But, are Boomers really idealistic? How ideal is it to clear cut entire forests for profit, process mass-produced food to the point that it’s no longer recognizable as nourishment, hoard all the resources and price gouge necessities like fuel and rent – then gaslight anyone who calls them out on their behavior? How ideal is it to repeatedly refuse to pass along industry knowledge to successors, outsource labor to other countries, cut staffing to abusive levels and continue to amass record profits while the middle class of our country dissipates into an defunct memory?

Admittedly, Gen X complains more – but that’s only because we haven’t had access to the luxuries the Boomers took advantage of and the younger Millennials are now assuming, despite their utter lack of tenure in the workplace. We see this and rather than stay and fight (living up to our “difficult” reputation), we simply leave and look for greener pastures. For a lot of us, that’s meant giving up the very tenure that would normally be associated with promotions to the C-suite.

Maybe instead of leaving, we should stay and fight. Generation X needs to learn to be as loud and obnoxious as the generations that sandwich us. After all, that’s how they’re getting all the good stuff. On the other hand, we’re not as big or as loud. Our voices may simply be drowned out by the protest-loving, vocal groups surrounding us.

The Millennials need to pay their dues. Not because Gen-X thinks we’re in any way superior, but because:

  • Starting from the bottom and working your way up gives you the depth of knowledge you’ll need to be truly and sustainably successful when you reach those higher levels in your organization. We all know those managers who brag about “knowing nothing, but surrounding (themselves) with people who do.” The truth is, nobody respects a manager who doesn’t know his business.
  • Beginning your career with a lower starting wage makes you appreciate that higher wage when it comes. Clearing $50,000 right out of the gate gives you no real understanding of how much $50k really is. Incidentally, it also causes inflation, but that’s another post.
  • Starting at the bottom gives you an appreciation for the many different personalities that comprise a workplace. By working alongside these people, you’ll see firsthand which personalities are best matched with certain roles. You may end up being surprised by the level of engagement you witness in your non-degreed counterparts, as well as begin to despise those arrogant, self-entitled folks who think they’re above the very work they’re being paid to do.

These are just a few of the myriad workplace dynamics Generation X has already learned. Unlike our Baby Boomer predecessors, we’re happy to mentor and share all we know with you – grooming you to become great leaders earlier in your career. However, if you leapfrog us, you’ll be more likely to make expensive mistakes which will, at best, slow your career growth and, at worst, create even bigger problems for companies, the economy, and society as a whole.

Generation X needs to take over for a while. The ship is off-kilter and Gen-X is poised to help right it. If it helps, you can always think of it this way: what Generation X earns today becomes a larger inheritance for Millennials tomorrow.

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