How do you get the best from Generation X?

Those born between 1965 to 1980, known as Generation X, are pragmatic and competent, yet place a high value on self-directed working environments with limited supervision

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 9:01am

A large component of our workforce belong to Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980. I’ve set out to investigate how to get the best of what has been described as a band of pragmatic, self-directed problem solvers. This was part of a study that examined generational differences across five countries collecting data over different years to see how changes emerged.

Initially I thought generation differences were explained by life cycle. As you acquired a mortgage and had children you would adopt the characteristics of the next generation, as you reduced work and retired you would shift again. I was proved right in some ways, but also proved wrong in other ways, and this highlights differences that are important for managers both in Hong Kong, and around the world.

One of the key findings is that there are distinct characteristics that belong to age groups which don’t change over time as their life cycle alters. However, before you can identify characteristics and the motivators of a generational cohort, you should consider the influences on the generation. That includes everything from pop culture to political changes, financial unrest, family upbringing and more.

The descriptor Generation X was popularised by Canadian writer Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel about disaffected youth, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Highlighted in the novel was the way economic circumstances have shaped the attributes of Generation X. For example, they have embraced the peripheral workforce, with contract-type arrangements, part-time roles, the gig economy – whereas for their baby-boomer parents, working was more about job security and loyalty to one employer.

They grew up with financial deregulation and globalisation. And they’ve suffered and experienced several economic downturns.

Gen X were also the first to experience both parents working – and were often called the latch-key kids, getting themselves home from school and waiting until their parents came home.

They’ve also seen their parents work very hard and face a number of challenges in the workplace, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s with radical increases in redundancies and downsizing.

In many cases, they’ve perceived their parents to have been treated poorly by employers. So, you’ll find there’s reduced levels of trust between corporations and Gen X. That’s an important influence on their lives.

They grew up with financial deregulation and globalisation. And they’ve suffered and experienced several economic downturns.

Even with halts on growth and income, Gen X have not altered spending patterns. They have very low saving rates and are not well prepared for retirement. More Gen Xers rent than previous generations and those that have home loans, have a higher prevalence of borrowing 100 per cent of a house price with negative equity in their homes.

Adding to the challenges of living beyond their means is an increase in the average child-bearing age, with women in their 30s and even 40s having babies. It means that the children of Gen X are younger – and need more attention – than for previous generations at this point in their lives.

If we can see where Gen X have come from, what should employers consider when hoping to engage, retain and harness their strengths?

Gen X are very pragmatic and competent, and independence is important.

They prefer to self manage and be self-directed. One of the worst things you can do is micromanage a Gen X employee. They are used to working towards agreed goals with limited supervision.

And it’s essential to create relationships that foster trust with Gen X, to emphasise accomplishments and results. They are problem-solvers and expect discretion and autonomy.

And one of the most important lessons for a manager is that Gen X want access to their boss.

They want to have a voice. They want to be heard – in a subtler way than younger people, who may be more demanding. Gen X like to get into the actual detail of the work and then prove themselves.

Gen Xers are used to changing jobs – typically, every three to five years. As a result, moving on to a new employer doesn’t create the concern it can cause for those who are older.

So, if you are reading this on the MTR, ponder how to retain staff in your company before they join yet another group flying out of Chek Lap Kok for a more interesting job abroad.

Project-based work is where Gen X really thrive. They are collegial, good at building teams and involving others in work.

Everyone wants to be paid fairly, but for Gen Xers – sometimes living beyond their means and carrying a lot of debt – attractive pay and financial incentives are a necessity. And having younger children and older parents makes a work-life balance more pressing.

If their kids don’t need them, their parents do. Having flexible work and options for different work arrangements – a condensed work week, working from home, job share – are important.

Consider giving a hard worker who has a growing family, Fridays working from home. It’s a perk that won’t impact on the bottom line, but means you can avoid another expensive round of recruitment.

Gen Xers, mostly in their 40s and early 50s, are at the mid-career point where if they are going to step up to the C-suite, now would be the time to make a move.

But as they get to 50 – and some of them are already past 50 – they face challenges as organisations outsource work to other parts of Asia, and as automation and artificial intelligence play a bigger role in the economy.

People may view Gen Xers as a lot older or out of touch with technology and automation, but this is unfair. It’s not all about having the opportunity to revitalise a career. They are facing a number of stereotypes associated with their age, and getting past them is tough, but well worth it.

But there is a heartening fact about Gen X and age: They can expect to live 10 years longer than baby boomers. As the Post has reported, Hong Kong residents enjoy the world’s longest life expectancy, on average 88 years for women.

That’s a lot more years to go, and many Gen Xers want to use them productively.

Avoid attempting to micromanage a Gen X employee. Give them collegial, teams project, leave them be, and your company will be the better for it.

Professor Julie Cogin is the outgoing Director AGSM @ UNSW Business School and Deputy Dean UNSW Australia Business School