In a Harvard Business Review article, right before the pandemic unleashed workforce upheaval, the director of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER) at leadership consulting firm DDI wrote that 66% of Gen X leaders had received only one promotion or none in the previous five years. The author said the findings were surprising, particularly because 52% of millennial leaders had been promoted, as had 58% of baby boomer leaders, who had received two or more promotions during the same period. Gen Xers, the author wrote “should currently be in the peak stage of their careers and advancing rapidly.”
Speculation about why Gen X was underrepresented in promotion focused on reflection of the generational cohort’s early reputation. As far back as the early 1980s, the cohort was called the slacker generation at worst and, at best, the misunderstood middle child of generations. Or was Gen X just “a group of people who did not wish to concern themselves with societal pressures, money and status”? (This was the description of X from the 1983 book, “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System” by Paul Fussell, which led to the moniker Generation X, or Gen X, by Canadian journalist Douglas Coupland.)
Then the pandemic happened. In the workplace shuffle that unfolded, and is still evolving in many ways, some older workers left, some advanced remarkably well (Target CEO Brain Cornell to stay beyond what was once mandatory retirement age) and younger workers, including millennials and Gen Z, were left to agonize about work-life balance and job stress. But Gen Xers remained steady overall, quietly guiding companies and teams through major shake ups in work life. Whether Gen Xers are remaining because they want to, or have to, isn’t uniform or clear. But they’re in the workforce to stay for now and smart businesses and companies should pay attention to Gen X’s small-but-mighty cohort clout.
Why Gen-X Employees matter
Long past their Beavis and Butthead (“I felt like a one-legged cat tryin’ to bury turds on a frozen pond out there”) jokes or the disillusionment of Winona Ryder’s character Lelaina in “Reality Bites,” Gen-Xers are the seasoned sages, knowledge bearers and skill masters that companies depend on now to maintain or gain a competitive advantage.
Once called latch-key kids for their ability to take care of themselves while two parents worked, Gen Xers tend to be loyal and dependable, particularly during years of economic insecurity and cultural uncertainty. (They grew up surrounded by it.) They’ve excelled at entrepreneurship and are often seen as resourceful and independent. In survey after survey, Gen X respondents prefer to do meaningful work, have stable employment and job satisfaction (over job prestige) and value family life more than career life. In a Gen X in the workplace analysis, most of the Gen Xers in the workforce safeguard their own values first.
“Almost 7 in 10 (69%) respondents would choose to be faithful to themselves rather than get a higher salary,” according to career site Zety. “They’d accept a lower salary to work for an employer with values that match theirs.”
(For more on traits and characteristics of Gen Xers, consider bookmarking this short psychological profile of Gen X. Unless of course you are a Gen Xer and could write the profile from experience!)
But despite their my-values-first outlook, Gen Xers will step up, remain loyal and show up with their digital (yes, as technologically savvy as millennials) and traditional leadership skills. So, how do we keep them?
How to retain Gen-X Employees
In many ways, the Gen X cohort differs little from other generations. The overarching retention strategies that work for most humans work for Gen X.
Actively listen to your teams and their ideas and opinions. Provide flexibility, whether that’s work-from-home opportunities or accommodating PTO. Offer competitive salaries or wages. And that means truly competitive, as in do your research to find out what your employees COULD BE making at your competitors’ companies. Don’t just tell yourself that what you’re offering seems like a lot, so it should be considered competitive. Recognize and reward your employees for their work. This is a baseline strategy. If you don’t do this, why would anyone want to stay with your company?
But some retention strategies are particularly targeted toward Gen Xers.
Supply them with chances to be in charge
According to a Pew Research Center report, 63% of employees who quit their jobs said a lack of advancement opportunities was their primary reason for leaving. Create a clear path for your employees to grow in their jobs and careers and the chances of retaining them increases. If possible, provide Gen Xers with chances to be in charge coupled with independence.
Gen-Xers often report that they prefer to work independently because they valued having control over their own outcomes. According to a Society of Human Resource Management report, Gen-Xers are highly self-reliant and are typically individual players who work well in situations without well-defined conditions where the environment is constantly changing.
Help them develop leadership skills
Early in their careers Gen Xers could have benefited from mentors to show them how to excel in leadership, but for some that’s long in the rearview. They are already leading. A retention strategy around that is to help them learn to lead well.
A 2022 study by Goodhire found that people will leave poor leaders in droves—more than 82% will quit a job to quit a bad boss. But leadership skills can be encouraged and learned.
Consider that Gen Xers want to succeed and want to take your business into the future, so help them help themselves, as well as you. Get them connected to resources—including time—that will allow them to build good leadership skills. Ensure your performance reviews take management skills into account and offer the training and the means for Gen Xers to excel at being leaders.
It might be as simple as providing them perspective via reading material, such as the
Acknowledge that you see them and know their struggles
Yes, this may be important for every cohort, but Gen X doesn’t have a history of asking for feedback and affirmation. When you provide that acknowledgement unsolicited, it shows your Gen X employees that they aren’t the forgotten middle children, and they aren’t just gears in the machine. Remember those characteristics of Gen X in the workplace?
Acknowledge them, but don’t pigeonhole them. Much like other generations, the Gen X cohort hates to be stereotyped, but wants to be understood.
Employee retention strategies can be found throughout the human resources industry and within leadership education, but if you’d like to have a conversation about how it works for us, call or email. We have ideas.
Gen-Xers are experienced, loyal, and dependable, making them valuable assets for maintaining or gaining a competitive advantage.
Gen-Xers value meaningful work, stability, job satisfaction, and prioritize family life over career life.
To retain Gen-X employees, businesses should actively listen to their ideas, provide flexibility, offer competitive salaries, recognize and reward their work, and create opportunities for advancement.
Creating a clear path for growth and offering chances for Gen-X employees to be in charge, coupled with independence, can increase their retention. They prefer working independently and value control over outcomes.
Businesses can offer resources, training, and reading material on leadership to help Gen-X employees build and excel in leadership roles. Performance reviews should consider management skills.
Acknowledging Gen-X employees shows that they are seen and understood, addressing their historical lack of feedback and affirmation. However, it’s important not to stereotype them and to strive for genuine understanding.