Don't Treat Them Like Baby Boomers
Just prick the surface of Generation Xers' feelings about life inside large corporations, and you'll likely discover a flood of concerns, as we found in reader responses to the BusinessWeek.com post "Ten Reasons Gen Xers Are Unhappy at Work." This article was originally posted on HarvardBusiness.org.
What, realistically, can corporations do?
Don't expect that the same approaches that worked well with a boomer workforce will work equally well with Xers. And don't assume that Xers will come to value the same things boomers did "when they grow up." Xers are grown up—and they don't think like boomers.
Teen experiences as latchkey kids and watching adults get laid off from corporations left many in Generation X feeling that one of the most important life priorities is to be able to take care of themselves under any circumstances. So, what Xers want from companies are jobs that offer a variety of career paths and allow them to gain fresh, marketable skills, build a strong network of contacts, and put money in the bank. And that's what corporations should focus on to make themselves more appealing to Xers.
First, recognize that many classic corporate career paths narrow at the top, making Xers feel that they have fewer options. Articulate career paths that offer multiple possible next steps. For example, position a move with: "After this, you will have the experience to take on any one of six jobs." This is different from what a boomer would more likely prefer to hear: "After this, you will be in contention for the top job." Boomers like to win; Xers like to have options.
Corporations should provide training of all types, support formal education, and ensure a broad set of work experiences to give Xers up-to-date skills and a sense of possibility about their futures. Consider creating lateral career options—the ability to gain additional breadth by moving sideways into other departments. This, too, may seem odd to boomers—a distraction from moving "up"—but Xers view moving "over" as creating options down the road. Since many Xers aspire to run their own entrepreneurial ventures, lateral moves also provide the broad business skills they will need.
Many Xers already maintain strong ties to friends who can be counted on in a crunch. Forming business relationships is valued by many, again with an eye toward future security, and is something corporations should facilitate. Companies that are known as good places to make important contacts, to "see and be seen," have an advantage with Xers. Support reputation- and network-building activities, such as participation in prominent industry or professional forums, learning opportunities, and other external activities. Avoid insularity.
Remember that Xers care about money—a lot. They are probably more money-oriented than boomers, who might be pleased with a promotion (which is equated with "winning"), even if additional financial remuneration is slight or nonexistent. An Xer would almost never find that acceptable.
In addition to self-sufficiency, Xers also place high priority on their children and family relationships. Corporations should be sensitive to the pressures this generation feels to "be there" for their kids more than their parents were for them. For many, this means there is a line they refuse to cross in terms of amount of travel or hours worked. Many would take jobs at lower pay to gain additional flexibility and time with their families. Corporations must offer these options in order to retain members of this generation.
In researching my upcoming book on Gen X, I interviewed a rising Xer corporate star. As we were discussing senior executive assignments, he mused, "I wonder who would want those jobs." I paused. "Well, gee, don't you think your company thinks that you do?" He seemed surprised that his company assumed he would. "Oh, I suppose they do," he said, "but that's not for me."
Organizations that take Xers for granted run the risk of losing key talent. This generation is not enamored with corporate life, so companies have to rethink their approach to appeal to the talent they need not only to attract but retain.
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