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Understanding Generation X

By now most people have heard of Generation X, the 46 million Americans born between 1965 and 1979. The men and women who were referred to as latchkey kids, slackers, lovers of caffeine, grunge, indie or anything that bordered on the avant-garde in some form or fashion. It is a generation that is often seen as cynical, contrarian and often on the periphery in general when it comes to life and other everyday matters. An unpredictable group, at best.

Recently, I led a roundtable panel with several, fellow Gen X scholars/professors at an academic conference entitled “Generation X Turns 50.” The discussions were funny, lively, engaging, candid, inspirational and very informative. In short, we kept it real! It was a pleasure to be part of such a vibrant discussion.

There are very good reasons as to why a number Gen X’ers (like their demographic cousins in other generations) are likely to be cynical or, at the very least, disillusioned with life. Turmoil and instability have been major factors in their lives. Generation X’ers have been directly affected by downturns in the economy, perennial wars, deadly sexually transmitted diseases and divorced parents. The group has often been eclipsed by baby boomers (1946-1964), millennials (1980-1998), and occasionally even our parents and grandparents of the silent generation (1925-1945).

Despite such distractions, many Generation X’ers have managed to survive and, in some cases, thrive in the face of unrelenting adversity. It is this sort of unyielding tenacity that has provided and equipped many Gen X’ers with the sort of adaptability needed to deal with the rapid uncertainties of life, both in the workplace and in the outside world. Many people in this age demographic have been blessed with an impervious spirit. Resiliency is in their DNA.

Generation X is naturally adept at acclimating to change. Many have dealt with the psychologically demoralizing feelings of being laid off, restructured, outsourced, reorganized and relocated more than any other group. They have acquired many skill sets necessary for adaptability in the 21st century. New challenges are often welcomed.

A detailed study conducted by communication consultants Elizabeth Foley and Adrienne LeFevre provided a thorough analysis of the traits, characteristics and other attitudes associated with Generation X. Complementing the insightful information provided by Foley and LeFevre was a detailed list of five core values provided by the Enrichment Journal and Kenneth Baugh, author of A Guide To Understanding Generation X Sub-Cultures, that are crucial to understanding the complexity, work ethnic, dedication and pragmatism that epitomize Generation X:

· Relationships. Relationships are the greatest fear of the X’ers as well as the greatest need. There is a deep yearning to know and be known, but they are afraid. They are afraid of letting their real selves out for fear of being rejected so they maintain the ideal self, the self that others accept — leading to deadly isolation.

· Fun. From computer games to bungee jumping, X’ers are into fun. One X’er said: “You think money is the basis for our existence when it’s really much simpler: fun is.” Most Xers work to live. Work is often a learning experience.

· Experience. Subjective experience validates if something is real and good. They want to enjoy life, make a difference, and do something meaningful besides just punching a clock from 9 to 5.

· Freedom. They don’t like to be labeled and put in a box. They want to be seen as unique individuals able to make a valuable contribution to society. They are very creative and independent and struggle with limits and rules. They value flexibility and spontaneity.

· Family. If X’ers have children, they don’t want to make the same mistakes their parents did. They will spend time with their kids. X’er parents, especially dads, seem to be incredibly committed to their children.

Every one of these topics was discussed in detail during our discussion. It is exactly these sorts of diverse, yet flexible characteristics that make many Generation X’ers the sort of individuals that are valuable, if not crucial, to many employers in all work sectors — business, higher education, the military, politics, medicine, law, the clergy, entertainment, etc. This often overlooked generation may need to be looked at a little more closely.

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