The ABC’s of Generations

X, Y, and Z (Part 1)

O ne of the most powerful models for helping to understand the evolution of the modern American workplace is known as “generational theory.” First proposed by two social scientists (William Strauss and Neil Howe), it suggests that each generation can be considered as part of a generational archetype based on what they have collectively seen and experienced. Thus, Generations X, Y, and Z can be viewed as very different, both in terms of what they expect from the modern workplace, as well as how they view the future.

Table Setters

Where generational theory becomes powerful is in its understanding of how preceding generations have essentially “set the table” for the next generation. This surprised Strauss and Howe, who were puzzled by the marked differences in attitudes by earlier U.S. generations (Baby Boomers) and newer generations.

Baby Boomers came of age during a time of optimism and prosperity; a time when the economic system appeared sound and unbreakable. Many Baby Boomers aspired to work for prestigious companies building this new economic reality. Not only that, but they also largely agreed to an unwritten ideology between employers and employees: we will employ you for your full lifetime, and you will give us your total loyalty and commitment in return.

The ABCs of Generation X

With Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1979), however, that ideology began to fray, and it deeply impacted how the members of this generation viewed the world around them. For one, the American economic miracle that occurred after the end of World War II was starting to stall. Secondly, the traditional family structure was also beginning to fray – divorce became common, and many kids grew up in single-parent households. Scandals in business and government became common, and the world suddenly looked a lot less welcoming than it had a generation ago.

It was the combination of those changes – especially economic and social – that helped shape what Generation X wanted from the workplace; Security. Some have described Generation X as the first “boomerang generation,” since many members of Generation X moved back in with their parents in their 20’s. And instead of marrying at a young age (such as right after college), they pushed off marriage and having children until they had found some additional stability in their lives.

Members of Generation X also highly prized education as a way to “get ahead.” Getting into the “right school” was one way to guarantee future success. And they began to clamor for flexible work arrangements as a way to deal with single-parent households. Moreover, this was the first generation that grew up with computers and video games, so there was a healthy regard for the role of technology in modern business.

 The Response to Generation X

So how did corporations react to these needs of Generation X? In response to the desire for more education, there was a greater focus on continuing education programs and ongoing workshops to keep employees up-to-date on new trends and technologies. In response to the need for flexible work arrangements, corporations began to experiment with telecommuting and part-time options, thanks in part to the growing rise of technology and the computerization of the office. Suddenly, it became possible to have conference calls with people outside of the office. Laptops meant that employees began to be untethered from their cubicles. As a direct response to concerns about the future, corporations created new types of savings and retirement options, including the 401(K). If you couldn’t count on the government for your pension, you’d have to save yourself!

And, in many ways, corporations tried to present the image that “the door is always open.” They told their employees that they mattered. They tried to create opportunities for employees to develop their skills and to create a workplace environment that worked for them. Even though Generation X was the first generation to grow up uncertain of whether they would live better than their parents, there was at least the illusion that committing to the interests of the corporation was in their best interests. Members of Generation X might no longer aspire to lifetime employment with a single company, but they had not yet settled on the type of job-hopping activity that would characterize later generations.

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