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A new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy finds that despite being the smallest generation (46 million), Generation X might be “the most critical generation of all” for employers. The study’s findings were presented last night at a launch event at Credit Suisse in New York City on September 15.
Gen Xers are of an age (33 to 46 years old) that should put them at the prime of their lives and careers, stepping into crucial leadership roles and starting families. However, the study, entitled “The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33- to 46-Year-Old Generation,” reveals that due to challenges and circumstances out of their control, Gen Xers are taking a different life path.
Perhaps the most shocking finding in the study is the exceptionally large number of Gen Xers who are choosing not to have children. Their extreme work schedules (nearly a third of high-earning Gen Xers work 60+ hours a week), strong career ambition, the current economic challenges, as well as changing mores and life choices are all factors that contribute to their high level of childlessness compared to other generations.
Gen X, born between 1965 and 1978, might be called the “wrong place, wrong time” generation. They were hit by an economic triple whammy: college- related debt, multiple boom and bust cycles (including the 1987 stock market crash, occurring just as Gen X entered the work force), and the housing slump. As a result, Gen X is the first generation not to match their parents’ living standards.
While these economic woes have impacted most generations, they have hit Gen X the hardest in their work lives. Due to their own financial concerns, Boomers are not retiring and are choosing instead to work an average of nine years longer than anticipated. This delays Gen X’s career progression, resulting in their feeling stalled in their careers and dissatisfied with their rate of advancement.
Yet the turmoil and instability that have been an integral part of Xers’ lives have yielded unexpected benefits in the work world. Having been front and center for every major economic crisis of the past 30 years, Xers possess exactly the sort of resilience that organizations need as they face an uncertain future.
Most important, Xers are masters at mastering change—a skill set critical in every company today. They have been laid off, restructured, outsourced, reorganized and relocated more than any other generation in modern times—yet they are hugely hard-working and ambitious, eager to amplify their talents by learning new skills and garnering new experiences. However, employers must take warning: These strengths risk being nullified by diminished loyalty, declining engagement—and increasing apathy.
A surprisingly large proportion of Xers are delaying or even opting out of parenting: 43 percent of Xer women and 32 percent of Xer men do not have children.
Among non-parents, 60 percent of women and 36 percent of men feel their personal commitments are perceived as less important than those of colleagues with children.
Despite having been nicknamed the “slacker generation,” Generation X enrolled in higher education in record numbers. Over a third of Gen X hold bachelor’s degrees and 11 percent have graduate degrees.
Gen X is not only highly ambitious but their ambition is nearly gender neutral: 75 percent of women and 72 percent of men consider themselves ambitious.
Thwarted by Boomers who can’t afford to retire and threatened by the prospect of leap-frogging Millennials, 41 percent of Xers are unsatisfied with their current rate of advancement and 49 percent feel stalled in their careers.
Debt determines many Xer career choices, with 43 percent of Xers saying that their ability to pay off their student loans is an important factor in their career choices and 74 percent saying the same about credit card debt.
The vast majority (91%) of X women and 68 percent of X men are part of a dual-earning couple. More than a third (36%) of Gen X women out-earn their spouses.
Women and minorities made up 64 percent of graduates during the Gen X college years. Many Xer minorities are the first in their family to graduate from college: 49 percent for African-Americans and 54 percent for Hispanics, compared to 33 percent of Caucasians.
For employers worldwide, the X factor is crucial to future success but few corporate programs are directed at their needs. Smart organizations will seek to understand what motivates them in order to sustain, retain, realize and maximize their potential. Solutions include offering alternative opportunities to Xers when they cannot be promoted vertically and making sure that Gen Xers without children receive the same flexibility as those with children.
Xers may have become accustomed to being invisible but “the X Factor” proves that no company can afford to ignore them now.
Methodology: Spearheaded by American Express, Boehringer Ingelheim USA, Cisco, Credit Suisse, Google and the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, research for the study comprised of virtual strategy sessions, ten focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and a survey of 2,952 U.S. college educated men and women in white collar occupations conducted by Knowledge Networks under the auspices of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit research organization.