I got into Northwestern University despite far-from-perfect SAT scores and missing the valedictorian spot by one grade. If I were a millennial, I would have had much longer odds. Born in 1976, I’m a late Generation X-er and have had less competition for everything pretty much all my life.
You’ve heard of Generation X. Due to plummeting fertility rates, the media called our birth years the "baby bust." Gen X includes those born between 1964 and 1979 and is bookended by the massive baby boomer generation (those born 1946–63) and the even more massive millennial generation (those born 1980–95). Historically, we’ve either been ignored or called slackers by pop culture and advertisers.
But we’re more influential in the modern workforce than we tend to get credit for and are about to become more so. And if the coming baby boomer exodus from the workplace is just revving up and Gen-Xers are next in line to fill the roles boomers retire from, it won't just be a sheer numerical advantage that plays to our favor. Here's why.
FILLING A COMMUNICATION SKILLS GAP
While these are sweeping and probably unfair stereotypes, you don't have to look far to find organizations urgently prodding their more senior employees to get with the technological program. Meanwhile, hiring managers and recruiters arepointing to a "soft skills" gap among recent grads and championing emotional intelligence as a job skill.
So while millennials may be unfairly caricatured as socially inept much the way boomers are wrongly dismissed en masse for poor technical chops, the trends in companies' staffing needs are unmistakable. Gen X-ers, on the other hand, may be more likely to prove communication maestros by comparison.
We grew up socializing without devices in our hands. Whether it was learning to cope with the neighborhood bully or sweet-talking our parents into letting us stay home alone while they went on vacation, many of us knew how to use words and persuasion to problem-solve and solicit cooperation.
Anna Garvey at Social Media Week called Gen X the "Oregon Trail generation,"referencing the 1980s adventure game that had millions of kids glued to their schools’ desktop computers. The idea was to get your wagon to Oregon before you lost all your oxen or died of disease. Oregon Trail and games like it showed us how to tinker with this new and strange technology and become masters of the machine.
Heading off to college and our first careers, the electronic age really started heating up. As Garvey aptly put it: "We came of age just as the very essence of communication was experiencing a seismic shift, and it’s given us a unique perspective that’s half analog old school and half digital new school."
To be sure, not every Gen Xer grew up the same way or acquired the same skills through their experiences. But our careers have tracked the rise of the digital workplace, and the foundation that's given many of us may pay dividends in helping us navigate the boomer brain drain.
In my first job at a PR agency in New York City, I dealt with issues typical of the alienated, twenty-something X-er. I struggled with how to meet people who could help me do my job, and how to talk to my boss about getting a raise.
But I was the only person in the office who knew how to use a search engine. I learned to survive in the boomers’ business world, but I also helped usher in the "tech everything" one that millennials would soon populate. I developed a useful hybrid of offline and online communication skills, easily shifting from one medium to the other.
When workplace clashes occurred, I understood where the boomers were coming from but also intuitively "got" the millennials. Eighteen years later, that role as a bridge still serves me well. Every day, as I serve as a translator and perform mediation and mentorship duties for boomer and millennial colleagues and clients alike. In the process, my skills as a leader of a multi-generational workforce only increase.
Of course, I'm just a sample of one. But the research seems to suggest that many other Gen X-ers share my experience. In a recent EY study that surveyed 1,200 professionals across generations and industries, Gen X scored higher than the other generations when it came to effective collaboration. In separate research published by the Center for Talent Innovation, 65% of respondents associated the "team player" label with Gen X-ers (compared to only 45% associating it with millennials).
Even if these findings don't reflect the innate personality traits shared by an entire generation—as some psychologists are quick to point out that they probably don't—they may still hint at the stage in our careers where my peers and I now find ourselves. More than that, from what we know about the skills companies need most in their new leaders, the research suggests that we're uniquely prepared for those roles—not just next in line for them.
For the rest of the piece, please visit the Fast Company website.