Five Reasons Gen X Is Cool with Gen Y

May 12, 2008
Generational experts love to talk about boomers retiring and the workplace needs of Gen Y, otherwise known as the Millennials. If you’re a recruiter or a HR pro, you can’t escape it.

When’s the last time you read an article about the workplace needs of Gen X?


Right—because no one cares. Nirvana, Eddie Vedder, the grunge thing, maybe a little bit of angst thrown in ... that was about it. Then Gen X went to work. No blogs talking about how much work is intolerable, no workplace consultants pitching how we were different, and no helicopter parents questioning our rejections. We just plugged into working America and figured it out over time.

That makes us the middle children of history. We are Jan Brady—compliant and serviceable, but never featured on the cover of the brochure. It’s always about Marcia (the boomers) or Cindy (Gen Y).

As a result, some generational pundits believe Gen X is upset by the amount of attention generated toward the workplace needs of Millennials. After all, they haven’t paid their dues. Why all the hype?

Speaking from the perspective of someone who manages Gen X, nothing could be further from the truth. I haven’t experienced a single Gen X representative wringing their hands about the unrealistic needs of the Millennials. It’s a non-event to the Gen X managers and employees I know.

So let’s debunk the myth and start hugging it out. Maybe we can even conspire to throw the boomers out. With my favorite Gen X and Gen Y pros in mind, here are my top five reasons why Gen X is cool with Gen Y:

  1. We’re young enough to remember how clueless we were: Let’s consider the harsh stereotypes of Millennials for a second. Reports say they’re selfish and unwilling to pay dues, and value work/life balance to an extreme. Is that really that bad? Doesn’t every generation come into the workplace with stereotypes? My generation floated into the workplace wondering if flannel was acceptable attire, thought every city that wasn’t Seattle or Compton was lame, and cried when Kurt Cobain left the building. The boomers raged against various machines, including Vietnam, Nixon and those who would withhold civil rights. In some ways, the Millennials look positively corporate in comparison.

    Every generation walks into the workplace with their boss wondering if it’s going to work out. It usually does, even though the diversity of the next generation makes great filler for mainstream magazines and consultants. If I ever need patience with a Millennial, all I need to do is go to the photo album and find a picture that looks like this. Reminders that Gen X and boomers didn’t have a clue "back in the day" should be the first chapter of any generational training session for managers.
  2. We like the strengths we see in Gen Y: When I interview Gen Y candidates, I see three main themes, including a strong desire for work/life balance, an incredible comfort with technology and an appetite for responsibility. Remind me again what the issue is? I like those attributes, with the only potential issue being the appetite for responsibility before the skills and experience are present to warrant it. There’s a word for what you have to do to manage individual expectations in the workplace.It’s called coaching.

    Gen X is the primary benefactor of the Millennial hype machine in one critical area—work/life balance. In many environments, hours worked and when you work them matter. Thanks to the Millennial conversation, it’s now much more acceptable to leave on time or even (gasp!) early. As long as the work gets done at a high level, it matters less now than ever. Thanks baby brothers and sisters!
  3. Somebody’s got to do the work: Let’s face it, the work has to get done. In any department of any size in corporate America, that means you are going to recruit, sign and coach Millennials. I’ve already established my belief that the differences are overplayed by the media and consultants alike, but even if all the stereotypes were as intense as reported, you still need the Millennials. Like the budget process, low unemployment when attempting to recruit, and the rising cost of health care, you work through it. No reason to be a hater.
  4. We’re close enough to the ground to see through the stereotypes: Any stereotype can be directionally accurate but hopelessly flawed when applied to an individual. Like all generations, the Millennials include high, average, and low performers, and varying degrees of potential. When coached for performance, the issues encountered are acutely unique to the individual. Thinking each individual is going to have the same needs or issues isn’t the reality. It’s a stereotype. Some stereotypes get you sued. Believing stereotypes about Gen Y just makes you an ineffective manager and coach.
  5. Like us, Gen Y is going to start having kids: Every generation is self-absorbed at an early age. That’s just part of growing up. When someone’s self-absorbed in the workplace, they need more attention. Then a funny thing happens: People start having kids. When people have kids, all kinds of things occur. Employees with kids become more conservative, less tolerant of career risk and generally less needy in the workplace. If you’re still wringing your hands about those darn Millennials, relax! Once they start having kids, the hard edges you see are naturally going to smooth out a bit. It’s the natural circle of life.

Of course, Millennials may delay having kids. If Gen X waited until their 30s to have offspring, Gen Y may wait until they’re 40. The good news is that you’ll be working for them at that point, so the transformation you see will actually help you relate and connect with your Millennial manager.

What else can I say? Let’s get together and talk about what we’ve got in common, instead of looking at our differences. But let’s do it early. I’m leaving at 3 p.m. for some "me" time. Thanks for making even thinking that acceptable, Gen Y!!