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Is an Exodus of Gen X Workers on the Horizon?

Every generation is inevitably saddled with stereotypes.  

I’m a 46-year-old, card-carrying member of Generation X. This means I spent my early 20s hearing that my peers and I were all cut from the same dispirited cloth: Indifferent toward the future and allergic to long-term thinking.    

Like most broad generalizations, this one wasn’t quite accurate. Although to be fair, I wasn’t exactly doing my part to dispel this myth. I was too busy brooding my way through college to give much thought to where I might end up 15 minutes after graduation, let alone 15 years.   

But I did grow up, and my outlook eventually changed. I still find time to blast Nirvana and obsess over Seinfeld. But I also think about my 401(k) balance several times a day.  

This shift in perspective has a way of happening once one starts a career and a family, and slowly gets sucked into the machine against which we once raged. A secure livelihood and opportunities for professional advancement become pretty important.  

The problem many workers in my age cohort currently face is that we’re stuck in the same spot on the corporate ladder. And watching colleagues in other age groups step right over us on the way up. Will this lack of career progression trigger an exodus of Gen X workers, taking off in search of new employers that will reward our hard work with promotions and heftier salaries? Or exit the workforce altogether to explore entrepreneurial pursuits?  

An age bracket issue

A recent Harvard Business Review article attributes Gen X’s lack of movement in part to the nagging perception of my generation—loosely defined as those born between 1965 and 1980—as apathetic slackers.  

“Like other generations before them, most Gen Xers have adopted a stronger affiliation for stability and tradition as they’ve aged and had children. But their unambitious reputation may be holding them back in the workplace,” wrote researcher Stephanie Neal. 

Maybe. But there’s simple math at work, too. We all know that scores of Baby Boomers are putting off retirement. This means they’re staying in the upper-tier roles that Gen Xers would otherwise be settling into as they enter their 40s and 50s.  

Then there are the Millennials, who The Pew Research Center projected would surpass Boomers to become the largest living generation in 2019.  

As the HBR piece points out, the Millennials who entered the workforce in the midst of the Great Recession are “eager to make up for lost time and earn more money” after seeing salary increases and advancement opportunities all but evaporate in their early careers.  

“Furthermore, companies have focused a lot of effort on how to nurture millennial talent, the first generation to come of age in the digital era, in the face of changing work habits and values,” Neal noted.  

Combine all these variables, and you see Gen X-age workers advancing at a slower clip than their counterparts. For example, recent HBR data finds this group getting promoted at a rate that’s 20% to 30% slower than that of Millennials.  

So, it seems some unique circumstances are conspiring to keep Generation X stuck in neutral, professionally speaking.  

But their professional plight is really more of an age-bracket issue than a generation-specific issue, says futurist and i4cp co-founder Jay Jamrog.  

“They’re in an age range—35 to 54—that’s very hard for any group of employees. The further you move up in the company, there are fewer positions and promotions available. The average organizational structure works like a pyramid in that way. So, it makes sense that employees who are at this age that’s sort of in the middle are going to be stuck. And Gen X is stuck between two really big generations: Boomers and Gen Y [Millennials].” 

A straightforward retention solution

When you consider the dilemma that these middle-age workers find themselves in, it’s easy to recognize the frustration mounting among the Gen Xers in your organization.  

So how do you keep them happy and engaged, and, ultimately, get them to stay? 

It’s straightforward, says Jamrog.  

“I don’t like looking at this in terms of generations. Gen X is like anybody else. They want to know that they’re valued and respected, and that they can grow with you. Your managers need to sit down with these employees and have a conversation about their development. They need to ask them: What do you want to do here? Where do you want to go in the organization? What can we do to keep you engaged?” 

The answers to these questions lie in providing these employees—and all of your employees, for that matter—with more varied experiences within your organization.  

(In our study The Three A’s of Agility: Reinvention Through Disruption, i4cp found that enabling greater talent mobility by providing employees with interesting, challenging work beyond their usual duties is a common characteristic of truly agile organizations.)  

Says Jamrog: “Maybe they need some upskilling or reskilling to move to a different role. Or, if you can’t move them out of their current full-time job right now, offer them some kind of internal gig work, for example. You’re giving them the chance to develop, stretch, and grow. That’s what people want, no matter what age group they’re in. Providing that helps them, and it helps the company.”