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Don't Dismiss Your Gen X Talent

Is the tide finally turning?

The Labor Department recently reported that the number of Americans quitting their jobs has begun to rise. Although the number is still quite low, it is a tentative sign that labor market mobility, which had petrified during the recession, has started to recover. Employers trusting a stagnant economy to keep top talent from leaving would do well to pay attention.

One particular demographic poised to jump is Generation X. At just 46 million in the U.S., Gen X is small compared to the 78 million Boomers and 70 million Millennials, but they wield a disproportionate amount of influence. Born between 1965 and 1978, they are the bench strength for leadership, the skill bearers and knowledge experts corporations will rely on to gain competitive advantage in the coming decades. Approaching or already in their prime of their careers, they are ready and willing to lead.

Yet their career progress has been threatened by leapfrogging Millennials and blocked by Boomers, who are postponing retirement to bulk up recession-ravaged 401(k)s. They had been promised the keys to the kingdom but are now in danger of turning into the Prince Charles of the American workforce: perpetual heirs apparent.

Unlike Prince Charles, though, Gen X'ers don't plan to stick around and hope for the crown. A recent survey from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) shows that 37% have "one foot out the door" and are looking to leave their current employers within the next three years.

With promotions only a scant possibility, what can employers do to keep their talent engaged and on board? Here are five options:

  • Develop corporate chameleons. "Once I've learned my job, I like to move on," says one X'er interviewed for the CTI report. "I need something new to keep things fresh." To prevent X'ers from feeling stalled and browning out, companies are rotating promising employees through different functions on a regular schedule. A Sibson Consulting survey (PDF) shows that more than half of Fortune 500 companies say they've begun shuffling potential leaders around to give them broad experience.
  • Let them learn. "I really like my company. It's a great fit," says another X'er. "But having said that, if it's the right thing, I'd jump. I won't stop learning or growing just to have a job." That's why even in the middle of a recession, smart companies are maintaining their tuition-reimbursement programs, as well as instituting mentoring and sponsorship programs that pair Boomer managers with Gen X'ers.
  • Bring them out of the shadows. Mentoring and sponsorship programs serve another purpose: They match mid-level managers with senior-level executives who can provide opportunities to enrich their career experience. Placing Xers in charge of high-visibility projects is also a way to spotlight their abilities.
  • Test their wings. Many X'ers would agree with one of their cohort who declares, "I have an entrepreneurial spirit that won't shut up." With many having been brought up as latchkey kids, Gen X is highly self-reliant; today, 70% of X'ers surveyed by CTI prefer to work independently, and 34% aspire to be an entrepreneur. Why not let them test their wings with a company-sponsored venture than risk having them fly the coop?
  • Promote partnerships. It's easy for X'ers to demonize Boomer managers as intransigent dinosaurs and Gen Y subordinates as self-aggrandizing upstarts. Break down the barriers through intergenerational partnerships and teams. Each cohort has its own strengths and gifts; sharing them will enhance everyone's abilities.

Although Gen X has been overshadowed by the demographic behemoths bracketing them, no company can afford to ignore them. Until recently, economic constraints have kept them in their current jobs. But as the recession loosens its grip, well-qualified X'ers will soon have many suitors vying for their abilities and ambitions. Smart organizations will seek to understand what motivates them in order to sustain, retain, realize, and maximize their potential.

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