Workplace Culture

The Last Word: Gen Why?

By Rick Bell

May. 1, 2013

Hey silent generation, baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and that new crop of kids set to sprout into adulthood: Say what you want about the individuality of your cohort. Brag on being sullen, or collaborative, or industrious, or technologically ubiquitous, or even being green. Boast about why you belong to the greatest generation.

It doesn’t matter. Let me repeat that: It does not matter. Ultimately, whether your values and attitudes were shaped by the Great Depression, World War II, Neil Armstrong’s giant leap to the moon, or 9/11, most of us want the same things: A warm body to hug, a little corner of God’s green earth that we can call our own and a good job.

If you think that’s too simplistic, then you’re complicating things. Don’t get me wrong; I love the theories about generations shaping the future workforce as much as the next boomer. The chatter and research surrounding each generation’s communal being is fascinating stuff.

But really, this cottage industry that’s sprung up around generational studies is like going to a palm reader. She asks you a few general questions, quickly factors in the common denominators, flips over the Tarot cards and voila! There you are! Hey, you’re right, Madame Tarot Card Lady! That’s me!

My needs and ambitions aren’t much different than my parents, and I’ll hazard to guess that my four beautiful little millennials’ dreams and goals track with me and their grandparents and probably their great-grandparents, too.

Sure, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But consider this: Besides raising a brood of 20-somethings (and one 30-year-old), I am now at an age where I have had the opportunity to work with and manage people from the last four generations.

Through experience and plain ol’ observation, I have concluded the following: Some workers are good, some are average and some are just plain clueless. Trust me; work habits know no generational boundaries.

To prove that age-group issues are universal, as evidence I call to the witness stand Generation X. Remember how they were labeled as a dour and gloomy group of individualistic misfits? Well, guess what: Gen Xers are quickly closing in on 50. And new research reveals they aren’t particularly gloomy or dour anymore.

In fact, they are remarkably similar to the generation preceding them—those idealistic Summer-of-Lovin’ baby boomers who ultimately succumbed to the ideals of “The Man” and stuck it to themselves. Gen X’ers are contentedly entrenched in middle age with mortgages to pay, kids to schlep to soccer and stressful jobs to work at, says MetLife’s Mature Market Institute (sort of sounds like a rest home for researchers).

And—wait for it—Gen Xers are a lot like their parents. For the record, Gen Xers, who were born between the early 1960s to the mid-’70s, “are now as affluent, stable and saddled with responsibility as their parents were at the same age,” the institute reports.

Ouch. That’s gotta sting for an entire generation that even five years ago was considered a bunch of cynical, Morrissey-loving introverts.

Of the 1,000 people interviewed for the study, 70 percent of Gen Xers live with a spouse or partner, have an average of 2.5 children and 82 percent own a home. They also love their jobs; 43 percent have remained in the same type of career throughout their working years, and 40 percent have been with the same employer for 10 years or more.

And what about the notion that the generation raised on MTV is a bunch of freeloading Donkey Kong-loving slackers? Nope—at least not when considering that 75 percent of Gen Xers responded that they work full- or part-time jobs.

So we boomers and our elders welcome these whippersnappers to the realities of middle age—not to mention middle management. In 20 years the geezers at the Mature Market Institute will produce a similar study about those self-entitled millennials, and you’ll in turn tell them the same thing: See? We really aren’t that different after all.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s managing editor. Comment below or email Follow Bell on Twitter at @RickBell123.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email

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