Understanding Gen X in the workplace

Written by Kit-San Yong, Associate Managing Consultant, Talogy

X seems to be the flavour of the day, what with the rebranding of a certain social network. But Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) tends to keep a lower profile. We don’t often grab headlines as much as the generations we are sandwiched between, with the much larger numbers of baby boomers that come before us and millennials after. However, we can be like a bridge between the two in many ways. When it comes to understanding generational differences in the workplace, the characteristics of Gen Xers can best be described as a hybrid between the styles and preferences of working with millennials and baby boomers.

Growing up as a Gen Xer

One of the things that makes Gen X unique is that we are the first true generation that straddles the analogue and digital worlds natively. We are also known as the first generation of ‘latch-key kids’ – kids who got home from school to a house where both parents were out working and at times there was no extended family to keep an eye on us.

Generation X grew up in a very bricks and mortar, meet and greet ‘70s and ‘80s time period, and became the first generation in our formative young adulthood to be confronted with having to adapt to personal computers, mobile phones, internet, and social media when they became available in the 1990s and 2000s.

The impact of this analogue childhood is why Gen Xers are mostly comfortable – or at least trained – to connect and communicate in person. Most of us were taught to behave in the presence of adults and authority. Imagine picking up your date as a teenager in the ‘80s and early ‘90s; ringing the doorbell, saying hello, and even making courteous small talk with sometimes pretty inquisitive, if not intimidating, parents. This is unlike later generations who can now just call or text their dates to come outside once they’ve arrived.

Characteristics of Gen X in the workplace

When it comes to Generation X in the workplace, this has translated to an appreciation of in-person face time and voice calls – especially with leaders and teams – even as we have embraced text messaging and emails. As an adult in an organisational environment, a certain decorum is expected and maintained in the presence of others. In private settings, we like to let our hair down and slap each other’s backs like juveniles with similarly juvenile pranks and jokes.

Generation X and technology in the workplace

With our experience as early adopters of information technology, the internet, and social media, we are also more tolerant of things that don’t work well, from the blue screens of early PCs to the long dial-up tones of early internet. My traditionalist father once questioned how I could accept paying so much for an early PC that broke down so often. This is probably what shaped Gen X’s tolerance of imperfection and openness to tidal changes in the workplace – from pagers to mobile phones and faxes to emails, for example.

Benefits of Gen X in the workplace

Today, apparently 74% of Generation X says social media is an essential part of our lives, which is very similar to millennials and Gen Z. This speaks of the adaptability and early adopter mentality of our generation.

Additional positive characteristics of Gen X in the workplace is that we work with things not just based on how we expect things to operate, but also how they actually operate. When that fails, we work around them. Our latch-key days taught us to be autonomous and resilient. Without the internet and social media, many of us were hobbyists, spending hours tinkering with new gadgets that we didn’t quite understand. Therefore, self-reliance and resourcefulness were traits we learned by playing and exploring without adult supervision or communication.

Flexibility and pragmatism are likely how Gen X manages problems. Gen X managers are more focused on either finding ways to make it work or taking over from their team to get things done themselves. On the other hand, Generation X in the workplace may not have the loyalty of baby boomers and are more willing to challenge the established norms of the work world, such as taking time off for family and defying career-household gender roles.

Gen X’s career world views are very much shaped by the ‘can-do’ maverick attitudes of young self-made billionaires that splashed across headlines in our youth. Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison, to name a few. But fellow Gen Xs, like Larry Page and Sergei Brin, were the epitome of how we scoffed at the traditional world at large. The Google co-founders employed ‘Do-No-Evil’ as a company motto, took a risk with a very uncommon Dutch-auction IPO (which was the largest of the time), and displayed uncommon humility by stepping down to bring in a much older CEO when they believed they had hit their limit. Thus, Gen X in the workplace has a healthy respect for expertise, but only those who have passed the credibility test, which is not always easy.

By and large, we have shown that it is possible to chart our own paths and compete head-on with the big boys of the time. With this self-efficacy, we expect trust and autonomy, but also recognition and the clarity of knowing our place – or having a place – in the grand scheme of things. When these expectations are not met, Generation X is more than willing to seek out another gang of kids to play with. After all, exploring the neighbourhood or tinkering alone was not so bad.

In my work with different organisations, one of the common challenges faced is a succession plan for key senior roles. In many organisations, there seems to be a gap between the incumbents and their successors. Many Gen X employees simply do not have the patience, loyalty, or trust in the goodwill of the organisations to wait their turn to be picked for the top jobs. We prefer to move on to other opportunities or to drop out of the rat race altogether. When we are tapped for these coveted roles, negotiations may go to less-familiar trajectories beyond traditional rewards of titles, pay packages, and benefits. What motivates Gen X in the workplace is prioritising areas such as work-life balance, shorter work weeks, and how it fits into their family needs and life aspirations.

The majority of Gen Xers also embrace the idea of continuous work post-retirement age, as their subject matter expertise allows them to provide immense value without a full-time engagement or limitations due to traditional work age or work locations.

While baby boomers may be comfortable delegating operations of complex equipment of their time (such as typewriters back in the day) to younger staff, Gen Xers are more likely to remain hands-on and explore and adapt, like how we used to tinker as kids. In reality, our success rate at this – like our tinkering – may be mixed.

In much of Asia where I mostly operate, it is very common to see Gen Xers as first adopters, from mobile-first at work to social media, from communication tools such as WhatsApp and WeChat to cashless payments. Similarly, Gen X tends to make these new tools our own, so you will see curious behaviours such as using WhatsApp as voice-notes instead of typed messages (especially for Asian languages), and keeping with familiar social media such as Facebook, Twitter/X, and YouTube that we adopted in their infancy.

Challenges of Generation X in the workplace

Like other generations, there are a number of shortcomings when it comes to Generation X in the workplace. While many Gen X leaders make great mentors and view younger co-workers as equals who bring different strengths to the table, others may struggle because they can’t grasp why someone couldn’t ‘see it’ or ‘learn it’ when it was so obvious to them.

The noted self-reliance and resilience characteristics of Gen X can sometimes present themselves in the form of stubbornness. Self-efficacy can become distrust of others and difficulties in collaborating. Independence can make us look at baby boomers in the workplace as helpless and clueless, and millennials and Gen Z as fragile and naïve. When we were young, we embodied the ‘not everyone gets a trophy’ mentality because we had to actually win to get medals. Yet when it comes to Generation X as parents, we are often also the same who cry foul about our children’s mental health and being psychologically scarred at the slightest things.

We put on a strong, brave face because that was how we were conditioned to behave in public. But at least some of us can really be juvenile at heart and in private, just wanting to be left alone to explore until it is dark and time to go home for dinner. Nobody ever really knew where we went, except ourselves. And there wasn’t CCTV, GPS, or any other way to verify for sure.

The elder members of Gen X in the workplace have their eyes fixed on a year in the not too distant future where we can turn in our work credentials, shut off that alarm clock, and ease into retirement (if they haven’t already done so). But for a good portion of us, there’s still a lot of time left and a lot of ground to cover in our careers. As we watch the remaining baby boomers at work hand over their company credentials for greener retirement pastures, Gen X is ready to use our adaptability and resourcefulness to lead our organisations into the future.

Editor’s note: As with most thought leadership content, its purpose is to share perspective and generate further discussion. Because everyone’s individual experiences vary, not all experiences and opinions will be the same for each member of Gen X. 





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