Companies & Industries

Ten Reasons Gen Xers Are Unhappy at Work


Corporations really need folks in their 30s to early 40s, but there is a tentative relationship at best between that cohort and Corporate America

Posted on Across the Ages: May 10, 2008 9:46 AM

I'm worried about Generation X and corporations. As far as I can tell, these two have a tentative relationship at best—and are likely headed for some rocky times ahead.

Corporations really need Gen X—folks in their 30's to early 40's, who should begin to serve as our primary corporate leaders over the next couple years. But I fear many current corporate executives are taking this small and therefore precious group for granted.

Many of you X'ers are not thrilled with corporate life. You tend not to trust institutions in general and deeply resent the Boomers' confident assumptions that you will be motivated by the same things that Boomers have long cared about. Many of you have told me that you are planning to leave corporate life "soon"—to start entrepreneurial ventures or work for smaller companies—options you feel will suite you better than the corporate roles looming ahead.

Why are many X'ers uncomfortable in corporate life?

1. X'ers' corporate careers got off to a slow start and many are still feeling the pain. You graduated when the economy was slow and the huge bulge of Boomers had already grabbed most of the key jobs. As an article in the May, 1985 issue of Fortune said: "[T]hese pioneers of the baby-bust generation are finding life on the career frontier harsher than ever…they're snarled in a demographic traffic jam…stuck behind all those surplus graduates of the past decade."

2. When you were teens, X'ers witnessed adults in your lives being laid off from large corporations, as re-engineering swept through the business lexicon. This engendered in most X'ers a lack of trust in large institutions and a strong desire for a life filled with back-up plans, just in case. Many of the adults you saw laid off and then struggling to reintegrate were in their 40's—about the age X'ers are reaching today.

3. Most corporate career paths "narrow" at the top —the perceived range of options diminishes as individuals become increasingly specialized in specific functions or roles. X'ers crave options, which assuage your concerns about being backed into a corner, laid off from one path. The sense of narrowing career paths and increased vulnerability is often most palpable at the transition from middle to upper management—just where many of you are today. This step also often brings demands for relocation and separation from established social networks—an additional assault on your sense of self-reliance.

4. Just your luck—the economy was slow when you entered the workforce and now its slowing once again—just as you are standing at the threshold of senior management. Stepping into leadership roles right now looks more difficult and the roles themselves, more vulnerable than they have at any point in the past decade.

5. And then there are those pesky Gen Y's. Many X'ers are charged with "managing" Y's which—let's face it—is an impossible task, at least if you define "manage" as controlling their channels of communication. While vying for promotions and trying to look good, many of you feel that Y's are doing an end run around.

6. X'ers are, in fact, surrounded by a love fest—and not feeling the love. As I wrote in last week's post, Boomers and Y's are learning from each other—and enjoying their interactions. It's easy to feel left out.

7. X'ers are the most conservative cohort in today's workforce—and you're surrounded by "shake ‘em up" types on both sides. In your personal lives, X'ers are not particularly keen on rules, but you had to follow them in the workplace—and you resent it when others now don't. It seems unfair to be rewriting corporate etiquette when you've had to toe the line for so long.

8. Many X'ers' are guarding a closely held secret: you're not all as comfortable with the technology that is changing the way things are done as everyone seems to think you are. While it's perfectly acceptable for Boomers to feign ignorance and ask for help, it's embarrassing for X'ers to do so.

9. And if Boomer colleagues are annoying, the Boomer parents of your Y reports are down-right over-the-top. X'ers can't believe the frequency of Y-parent interactions and are deeply turned off by parents who make their presence felt in the workplace.

10. Finally, your own parenting pressures are at a peak. You're deeply committed to spending more time with your kids than your parents did or were able to spend with you, but juggling is getting more and more difficult.

Is it time to jump off the corporate train?

I hope not—at least not for most of you. Corporations really need your leadership. But I understand that we need to create corporate environments that are more conducive to your needs and preferences.

I'm in the middle of my latest writing project—a book on career options and strategies for Gen X'ers. I'd love to hear from you about your experiences, frustrations, and success. What works? What doesn't? What do you worry about? What would you most like to know?

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