Found Generation

Generation X: all grown up & just getting started

I just asked Siri to search for books on Generation X and leadership.  (Granted—Siri searches iBooks which isn’t quite as good at the whole book thing as Amazon. Maybe Alexa would have different results—mental note to test that later.)  I was shocked by the results, or more specifically, I was shocked by the lack of results.

Where are the books for and about Generation X leaders?  Were they never written?  Did we absorb our professional development in other ways?  Weren’t we interested in books?  I seem to remember buying dozens.  At one time, I think the going publishing wisdom was that we were to be the last generation that would be interested in good old ink and paper—and then of course we reinvented publishing for ourselves with the self-designed ebook. Nevertheless, the lack of titles stunned me, since, after all, ebooks on iBooks appeared in the results.

Just for kicks, I tried other searches—Generation X managers, Generation X management, and just plain Generation X—all within iBooks.  I found some cultural humor and a few outdated tomes—even one referring to Millennials as “Zoomers.” Of course, there are always new books on leadership hitting the “bestseller” lists. But with four generations currently populating the workplace, there’s a great need for advice more tailored to the unique stage of the target readers’ career.  There’s not much advice targeted specifically to us as a group (what is out there looks dated by our generation’s economic upheavals). In addition, there’s not much out there written BY us about our work journeys so far in the form of advice for others like us and those coming through just behind us.

Obviously my search was limited—and on purpose—by our generational nickname.  For comparison, I took the same steps with “Baby Boomers.”  Although there are few books appearing when this term is combined with “leadership,” “management,” or “at work,” there’s a very wide variety of titles—including books on business, money and career—when the search is simply, “Baby Boomer.”  Apparently there’s still a lot to learn about America’s aging population explosion, and you can get plenty of books about that.  Would you like to predict what I found when I asked Siri to search for books on “Millennial Leadership?”  You’re right: It was a book avalanche beginning with a title by that very name.

Does Generation X truly lack a presence in publishing when it comes to leadership and management books? Or perhaps when we publish, we do not present ourselves as representative of a generation (think of the “generation defining” The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson)? Either way, it was an interesting search experiment.

Managers who run workplaces for others do not do what we think they do–if the training we provide for them is any measure.

How many times have you heard a new manager say, “I wasn’t trained,” and how many times did you stop to think about what she meant? In my own experience, this statement is not a reflection on the person doing the training, even when the speaker means it that way. Whether the untrained manager knows this or not, his statement reflects our shared misunderstanding of “management training,” and that stems from misunderstanding about what workplace managers do.

If you run a workplace for other workers, think about your own most recent job training. When your company provided what they thought was preparation to do your job, did the training prepare you to hire employees capable of supporting initiatives? If recruiting is part of your duties, did your training help you develop competent recruitment skills? Often, workplace managers are blamed for high turnover rates; in fact, your evaluation most likely includes a turnover metric for your direct reports. Did your training include practical learning designed to help you achieve reduction in turnover? My suspicion is that your training contained none of these things, or perhaps such light treatment of the subjects that your takeaway was neither “competence” nor “practical” in any way.

Let’s think of it this way. Technical mastery of company methods of inventory tracking, new hire on boarding, sales tracking, etc, will be at least part of the goal for a company’s training. Yet, if all or even most of the learning focuses on this type of knowledge, we need to admit that this is not “management training.” When the primary responsibility of the manager is people-related rather than technical, most of the learning should reflect this.

Managers of workplaces who give up on the job are often right when they say they were not trained. It’s not that there was not training, but that it was the wrong training. When teaching performance leaders to become people leaders, we must relate the skills already mastered to the skills now required. We must build a bridge for the learner between the people-skills (or soft-skills) they acquired to get promoted and the people-skills needed to lead a workplace full of others doing the very tasks that they once did so well.

It certainly complicates matters when companies acquire new managers in two very different ways: recruiting external candidates who are already great workplace managers and promoting a candidate who has mastered the skills required to deliver a company’s product and shows promise as a manager. Both of these managers will need training as they move into position, but they each need very different training.

Managers who run workplaces may deliver product, compile reports, analyze inventory, implement sales initiatives and communicate company directives–in fact, they probably do all of these things. But the primary responsibility of the workplace manager is to hire, train and retain a team and to maintain engagement in the workplace. “Management training” for these individuals must reflect what it is that we actually expect them to do.

At work, I manage American Millenials; for the most part, they’re the people I talk to and listen to throughout my day.

I recently told those working with me that I’ve taken on a project involving generational theory. I asked them, as Millennials, what did they think of Baby Boomers?  Or is this a subject they even cared about?

It is. I heard from all three on shift with me, and they held very definite opinions. I still think of Boomers as second-wave feminists and pacifists; so my Millennial coworkers surprised me with their low opinion of the Boomers’ social record. The Millennials resented what they viewed as the Boomers’ selfishness that, for them, defies our cultural identity. One of them summed up what he viewed as Boomers’ social denial.

“I mean, we live in a society where we help each other,” he said with a shrug.  For him, it was a foregone conclusion.

I stopped what I was doing, truly amazed.  I resisted the urge to ask, Since when?

Don’t get me wrong–Generation X is devoted to mentoring and teaching. The opportunity to mentor motivates the work I love to do. But I think X-ers view “helping” as a personal, charitable effort, a conscious choice to buck the social trend of “me, me, me.” So I was not shocked that the Millennial and his peers agreed that “we” help each other. I was shocked at their trust in this as an American social trait.

“Do you really believe that about us, about our society?  That we are a society that helps each other?”

“Well, yes….”  Surprised that there could be another view, I think, the conversation paused.

“I did not grow up that way.”

When I first began to look into it several years ago, much of what was being written about Americans my age was most unflattering. Supposedly, when Gen X entered the workplace we were materialistic and selfish, not so much because it was our fault but because after all we came of age in the Reagan years and young Boomer yuppies were our role models.  The theory was that we had overblown expectations because we watched movies like Wall Street. Alex P. Keaton, though meant as a caricature, was how we saw ourselves.

Seriously? These characterizations never rang true for me. When I had time to watch Family Ties, I may have laughed at poor Alex. But then, I also understood why he worked so hard. It’s not so much that I saw myself in him as that I understood that only those able to produce the results he did would make it in the world we faced. I felt a bit sorry for Alex, for the life he was doomed to lead. I laughed, but I didn’t hate him. I couldn’t.

I worked minimum-wage jobs through high school and college, as did many I knew. None of us believed Social Security would be there to support us in old age, so we viewed that deduction as just another tax.  High school had been a Darwinian slug-fest for the ego, producing emotional gladiators–or not. And college was basically for those who could pay.  Unlike Alex Keaton, I couldn’t obtain loans or scholarships.  If my parents had not scraped together enough to pay tuition and I had not worked two jobs, I would not have graduated.  When I won an assitantship for graduate studies, my tuition was paid and I only had to work one job–as a grader and then a lecturer. I earned a meager salary and health insurance, and I was overjoyed.  Compared to my undergraduate years, it was the easy life!

Gen X did not grow up in a society that helps each other.  We grew up in a society where if you wanted to ever be able to help anyone, including yourself, you had better hustle and get after that golden ring.  The alternative was dire.

Yet here are people I work with, in the generation just after mine, embracing the idea that our society is made up of those who help each other. It makes me smile; I mean, my oldest biological children are older members of Gen Z, just barely entering the workforce, and I did everything in my power to make sure their path was different from mine. It’s not that I made it easy; to be honest I was less able to do that than my parents were. But together my daughters and I found alternative paths to success in funding college and entering a chosen professional fields. I was helping, but so were others who assisted us in finding a way through for my girls.

Maybe, now, it’s true. Maybe, socially speaking and not just individually, “we help each other.” I’d love to think so. When I think of Alex Keaton, I wonder if he’s the entrepreneur who donates a billion dollars to his alma mater to eliminate needs-based admission. I’d love to think so. Maybe people like my co-workers will help people like my daughters make a society of helping real for the next generations who come along.

Imagine that.

I started investigating what was being said about Generation X’s status when my own changed dramatically.

In my thirties, I spent seven years learning how to design and implement curriculum to suit the learning needs of three unique individuals: my kids.  Along the way, I was creatively inspired. I started a novel series and self-publishing sideline.  These efforts drew on my previous education and experience: management, professional mentoring, teaching college English, graduate work in literature. I was building on everything I already knew.

And then, my teenaged daughters decided to go live with their dad.  My young son and daughter also told me they would like to go to public school.  Together we had built a life, complete with friends and a flurry of activity, but my children were, quite simply, ending it.  My daily routines depended completely on the willing participation of others, and they were no longer interested in continuing. Perhaps that’s true of most unexpected life changes, like being fired or enduring divorce.

Fortunately for me, I did find a deeply satisfying project as I returned to work, yet still I felt lost in shock for several months–maybe more.  It was only after about two years that I begin to talk about the work I lost, the life I felt I’d lost.  When I did reach out, friends reached back with honest stories about their own lives, and something incredible happened.

I learned that in one form or another, they experienced the same thing.

A simple theme emerged from these conversations: slowed momentum.  After years of movement and milestones, our own or those of our loved ones, we were slowing, maybe even stopping.  And for a generation all about doing and making for ourselves and others, this sudden lack of motion created terrible pain.

“I had something I was doing every day.  I got up in the morning and no matter what the challenges were, I felt that I was doing something that made a difference, something that no one else could do.  Now, it’s all abruptly over.”

It’s not that we aren’t still busy, even exhausted from busy-ness.  When I say “slowed momentum,” I mean that we are overwhelmed by a loss of the meaning we once assigned to that activity.  We built expertise in a job, raised kids, invested ourselves in what we thought would be lasting, but in some form those investments outgrow us or let us go. Perhaps more than any generation since the industrial revolution, Generation X experiences life as a continual process of investing and releasing–or not being able to let go and being released ourselves.

The life in which I had fully invested myself, and in which I even saw a future, released me. That event left me with a serious question, perhaps the most important and most scary question of my life. And perhaps even more scary was the fact that many of us were facing the same question together.

What now?

I read Earnest Heminway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in high school.  I found their works in paperback at the Waldenbooks near he apartment where we lived while my parents househunted in Houston, Texas, and I bought them with babysitting money.  During my senior year, I took an advanced English course that challenged me to write about my favorite authors and the influences shaping their work, and that’s how I first encountered Gertrude Stein.

“Vous etes un generation perdue,” she told Hemingway.  You are a lost generation.

In college, I looked deeper.  Why was Hemingway lost?  Why were he and his peers self destructive and expatriated?  Wasn’t that an outdated, oversimplified way of categorizing a generation of American artists?  I learned about the tumultuous nature of American life at the time and the difficulties many Americans faced.  I learned about urban-rural conflict in prewar American culture, and I wrote some papers about that.

But Hemingway and his like were out of fashion at the time.  I found exactly one course about my favorite and his peers, but that professor left the A&M English department before I was a junior.  I then moved on to more trendy subjects: gender studies and British and American novelists who challenged the stereotypes the lost generation of writers had done much to perpetuate.

When Woody Allen made “Midnight in Paris,” I remembered my first literary loves.  I had the advantage of a few decades of life experience by then, which prompted me to look back and wonder.  Of all the writers and all the paperbacks at the Kingwood, TX Waldenbooks in 1986, why did I spend my babysitting money on the lost?  Why Hemingway?  Why Fitzgerald? Was I already sensing a kindred relationship between their American experience and the one that my budding generation (adeptly defined around that time by a handful of John Hughes movies) had just begun to gather?

I made some startling discoveries.  Apparently, my generation, dubbed “Generation X” in a novel by Douglas Coupland circa 1991, was already being called the second Lost Generation.  Though raised to believe it was our duty to fulfill it, we are the first generation in American history with little hope of achieving the American Dream.  In addition, a study has already been completed that labels us as the generational group dying off early at our hands one way or another; we are, largely unnoticed, suffering “Deaths of Despair.”  I also learned something I had no idea was true:  although socially the group we most focus on saving from suicide is adolescent and young adult, the largest number of American suicides are in their parents’ age range–that’s us.

And then I looked at my own life and realized my experience was not that different from my peers.  I looked around and discovered that none of us were saying very much about it.  I think that should change.  We may be a small group.  We may be struggling with midlife disappointment.

But we don’t have to be so silent on our issues, and we certainly are not alone.