Generation X and the "Ass Ceiling"



Thursday, May 4, 2017

August 12 is National Middle Child Day. Jan Brady will be so happy. So, too, should members of Generation X.

A group born between Boomers and Millennials, Generation X is today’s middle child when it comes to generations. The name came from Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel, Generation X, Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Although Coupland has provided different versions of his inspiration for the “X” in the name, where it came from is less important than what it has come to mean.

Members of Generation X seemingly lack an overarching identity — like the “me” generation descriptor for the mindsets of self-centered Boomers or the “we” generation for Millennials focused on the “collective self.” In our work at the Institute for Tomorrow, we’ve concluded that Gen Xers, so-called “latchkey kids” raised by single or working parents, have, if anything, a self-reliant mindset.

In any event, these days Gen Xers are largely ignored by the media. They simply aren’t a story.

One reason, perhaps, is where they are in their careers. Essentially, Gen Xers are smack dab in the middle of their 30- to 40-year working life. They’re not entering the workforce like Millennials. Nor are they leaving it like older Boomers. Gen Xers as a population are static. Static is not as exciting as dynamic. And apparently not newsworthy.

That explains part of why the Google News alerts I get daily on each generation rarely include stories about Gen X. I’ll get 10 articles about Millennials, 10 about Boomers, and none about Gen Xers. If Gen Xers are mentioned, it’s usually in an article about Millennials and Boomers.

1 in 4 Americans Is a Gen Xer

What’s patently unfair about this unequal coverage is that there are almost as many Americans in the Gen X age range today as there are Millennials and Boomers. Depending on the cut-off years — and thanks to immigration over the last 30 years — we have about equal numbers of these three generations.

That means that 1 in 4 Americans are between 35 and 52 years old. Slightly more than 1 in 4 are Millennials (ages 16–34 this year), and slightly fewer are Boomers (ages 53–71). The remaining quarter are either 15 or younger, or 72 or older.

It’s no wonder, then, that Gen Xers represent more than 1 in 3 people in the workforce today. They’re in middle- and upper-management positions. More and more, they run America.

Well, almost.

You see, those Gen Xers in their 40s to early 50s are beginning to realize that the Boomers ahead of them are not leaving their jobs. Positions are not opening up.

For example, in 1996, 56 percent of 62-year-olds (from the Silent generation) claimed retirement benefits from Social Security. In 2013, the most recent data, only 36 percent of Boomers at age 62 claimed such benefits. If they’re not retiring, they must still be working — occupying seats that one day will belong to Gen Xers.

Forget the glass ceiling, these Gen Xers are facing an “ass ceiling” of Boomer butts still in those seats. For larger organizations that are unable to encourage older workers to leave to make room for the next generation, this is causing problems. The longer that Boomers stay, and the more Boomers who stay longer, the fewer advancement opportunities there are for Gen Xers. Fewer opportunities inside an organization results in more people looking for career advancement elsewhere.

The bottom line here (pun intended), is that companies and larger organizations need to proactively monitor their Boomer “ass ceiling” problem. They should develop strategies for encouraging Boomers to move along and for incentivizing stuck-in-the-middle Gen Xers to stay put.

The tensions created by this trend — and by young Millennials who seem ready to run an organization the day they are hired — need to be managed. These days, most human resources departments have rebranded as “talent acquisition” or “talent management.” Hollywood producers will tell you it’s hard to keep “talent” happy. With the “ass ceiling” facing Gen Xers, this long-neglected generation would benefit from some care and feeding.

Next Issue: Creating Winning Work Cultures for All Generations