Brave X World: HR Articles on Generations

The August 25th issue of BusinessWeek (with quirky actor Rainn Wilson of The Office fame on the cover) is the kind of issue that HR geeks like me will eat up. It's packed with articles from some of our favorite business gurus including Jim Collins, Ram Charan, Marshall Goldsmith and others. After reading the feature twice, I was struck by two articles.
The first came from Marshall Goldsmith, who noted that "old people" – his phrase not mine – like to brag about how tough things were "back in the day." But in reality, he contends, life was easier back in the day for many – primarily if you were American, white and male (again, his words). Goldsmith cites himself as evidence that, with his GMAT scores and average work ethic, he would not be able to compete in today's environment.

I do not think Goldsmith was referring to the Silent Generation (those around 65 and older). I have a friend whose father grew up during the Depression, served in WWII, survived the Battle of the Bulge and had a child when he was in his 50s. He can tell me life was tougher "back in the day" – which he often has. But what struck me in Goldsmith's article was that it's usually the Baby Boomer "old people" who lament about the good old days to Gen Xers and now Gen Yers.

The next article to get my attention was a three-page spread titled "What's Eating Gen X?" that depicts a Gen Xer in a straightjacket followed by a "Boomer's Guide to Communicating with Gen…" The article paints Gen Xers as the Jan Brady of the work world – which may not be that far off. They seem to hear about nothing but "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha" (the Boomers). And since Cindy (Gen Y) is the baby – can she really do anything wrong with that cute, gap-toothed smile and those pigtails (in this case, a metaphor for iPods and MySpace pages)?

What's eating Gen X? I think Goldsmith put his finger on it: how highly competitive the world is today, sandwiched between two monster-size generations and a general denial of these two realities.

What struck me about these articles is the underlying message that Gen Xers need to be "fixed" or "handled." But if you refer back to Goldsmith's article about the new global work reality, why is there not an article about how well-prepared the Xers are as a group to compete on a global level? Gen X is a cohort of "working gypsies" and has established strong values that motivate them to pursue work that is meaningful to them. As Goldsmith asserts, they are born to be entrepreneurs.

The question that occurred to me is how will organizations attract and retain (regardless of age) the employees who take Goldsmith's advice to heart and practice that "we're all entrepreneurs"? This was not the point of the magazine feature but a question HR professionals need to consider. What will our organizations need to look like to attract the necessary talent? Where will we need to go geographically to find talent? How will our assumptions about work and different employee cohorts need to change? These are all questions we need to ponder as we consider this brave "X" world.
Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.