Forgotten Gen Xers: What Motivates the 'Sandwich Generation'

Need a break from all the attention that Millennials get? If so, there's another cohort that could use some love: Generation Xers.

"Gen Xers" were born from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. They make up the second-largest share of the U.S. workforce and command the third-largest segment of the country's population. Moreover, they are helping to effect a major workforce transition.

"There is a massive demographic shift underway in the workplace," said Kip Kelly, director of marketing and public programs for the Executive Development unit of the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School. "In less than 10 years, Millennials will represent 75 percent of the global workforce. Every day, the workforce is becoming more diverse than ever before, with several generations working side by side. Generation X is in a unique position to lead, serving as a bridge between Baby Boomers and Millennials."

Although they comprise a smaller group between two larger generations, Gen Xers – aptly described as the "Sandwich Generation" – are taking on a central role in the workforce despite receiving less attention than other cohorts, said Stefani Yorges, Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and head of the West Chester, Pa., leadership development company Leading Higher.

"Gen Xers … are gaining influence in the workplace as Boomers retire in increasing numbers," Yorges said. "The fact that they are the 'Sandwich Generation' affects Gen X. They often feel invisible. Because their generation is significantly smaller than other generations, they have often been overlooked by the media and society."

What's Shaped Gen Xers?

Political events such as Watergate, the Iran hostage situation and the end of the Cold War as well as economic recessions in the late 1970s and early 1980s influenced Gen Xers' view of the world, noted Yorges. Such events "resulted in a generation with a healthy skepticism about formal authority," she said, adding that the fall from grace of prominent figures such as President Bill Clinton and pro football legend O.J. Simpson contributed to their general distrust of organizations and leaders.

"Leadership, as defined by Gen Xers, equates to competency," she said. "In other words, seniority is not as valued as proving one's ability to lead."

Economic challenges often translated into upheavals on a personal level for Gen Xers, Yorges added. "This generation witnessed high unemployment, layoffs/downsizing and family relocations caused by economic instability as they were growing up," she explained. "As a result, Gen Xers tend to be independent and individualistic, placing more value on their own careers over loyalty to organizations. Gen Xers, many of whom grew up as 'latchkey' kids, are independent, resilient and adaptable."

Kelly added that Gen Xers often exhibit resourcefulness and self-sufficiency but may be reluctant to highlight those attributes. They "are less likely to say that they are unique, compared to Millennials and Baby Boomers," he said.

What Drives Them in The Workplace?

Gen Xers often place a premium on clarity in regard to expectations, autonomy to achieve desired outcomes and striking a proper balance between their professional and personal lives, the sources interviewed for this article said.

"They expect clear goals, but they want the freedom to make independent decisions to achieve those goals," said Kelly. "They want leaders who will give them autonomy to be successful."

In terms of interacting with co-workers, Gen Xers tend to favor "technology-based interactions" over "unnecessary face-to-face meetings," Yorges added.

"They value direct communication and feedback with leaders," she explained, pointing out that email and instant messaging offer that desired level of immediacy. "They don't want to spend a lot of time talking about things or having meetings. They want to get in, do the work and move on to the next thing. They work best when they are empowered to work alone to get the needed result."

Gen Xers' preference for intangible rewards such as workplace autonomy and flexibility marks a shift from how preceding generations approached work, continued Yorges. "This generation has resisted the workaholic mindset of their predecessors, demonstrating a desire for less formality in the workplace and a greater balance between work and life," she said. "Their parents sacrificed time at home with their families. Gen Xers still enjoy challenging work but want more balance in their lives."

They're Independent, But Can They Lead?

As Baby Boomers transition into retirement, Gen Xers won't necessarily be next in line to take the reins of leadership in organizations, said Kelly.

"Many companies are struggling to fill that talent gap (left by retiring Boomers), and many companies are looking at both Gen X and Millennials to take leadership roles, he explained. "Millennials already hold about 20 percent of all management jobs, and that percentage will continue to grow."

To be sure, Gen Xers aren't being denied leadership roles and they have often proven they can work well with both Baby Boomers and Millennials, Kelly continued.

"They serve as a bridge between these two generations, sharing common traits with both," he said. "For example, Baby Boomers respect authority and hierarchy while Millennials prefer flat organizations with a less formal chain of command. Generation X often fall somewhere in the middle and they have learned to adapt to both. As a result, Gen X has become skilled at managing across the different generations."

Managing Millennials can also put Gen Xers' adaptability to the test, added Kelly.

"Millennials want coaching and development, and they expect more feedback than previous generations," he concluded. "This can be a challenge for Generation X, who value autonomy and independence. They need to take the time to coach Millennials and create development opportunities. While an annual performance review may be sufficient for Gen X, Millennials want constant feedback – at least monthly, if not more frequently."



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