Living on the edge: Xennials and others

 

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When it comes to generations, it’s not always a perfect fit.

As both a language lover and marketing professional, I love when a new made-up word takes hold. Last month, there was huge media coverage of the term “Xennial”–coined to describe those late GenXers/early Millennials whose unique experiences make them feel like they don’t belong in either generation.

 

The portmanteau originally appeared in a piece by Sarah Standkorb and Jed Oelbaum for GOOD magazine in 2014. The term caught fire again recently when University of Melbourne professor Dan Woodman, in an interview with Mamamia.com, explained the concept of this microgeneration:

“The idea is there’s this micro or in-between generation between the Gen X group – who we think of as the depressed flannelette-shirt-wearing, grunge-listening children that came after the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials – who get described as optimistic, tech savvy and maybe a little bit too sure of themselves and too confident.”

The Xennial Experience

A common phrase I hear from a lot of Millennials is, “Yeah, but I’m not really a Millennial…” It’s usually an attempt to distance themselves from negative Millennial stereotypes, but sometimes it is in reference to their Xennial experience which blends characteristics from both GenX and Millennial generations. A Xennial:

  • Was born during the original Star Wars trilogy.
  • Had a computer-free childhood but a tech-connected adolescence.
  • Played more Oregon Trail than PacMan.
  • Watched more “My So Called Life” than music videos on MTV.

The concept behind this is not unique to this sub-segment of those on the Generation X/Millennial cusp. When generations span 15-20 years (depending on who is counting), the shared experiences and defining moments of a generation look really different depending on which end of the spectrum you fall. If you are on the cusp of two generations, you might technically belong to a generation because of your birth year, but attitudinally identify with a different generation altogether. Let’s apply the “Xennial” model to other generations.

Baby Boomers –Generation X = BooXers  

No, I don’t really think “BooXers” is going to catch on. But I have hope, as there happen to be a lot of these folks who are on the cusp of the Baby Boomer generation (1946-64) and Generation X (1965-1980). A BooXer:

  • Was alive for the moon landing but vividly remembers the Challenger disaster.
  • Considers “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” their coming-of-age movie over “The Breakfast Club”.
  • Wasn’t quite sure how old they needed to be to buy beer, as the drinking age was a moving target.
  • Started their gaming experience with pinball and ended it with Atari.

Millennials – Generation Z = GenZennials

It might be harder to predict where the “cuspers” of Millennials (1981-2000) and Generation Z (2001-present) will fall on the spectrum as Generation Z is still coming of age. But even now, we can observe how early GenZ is distinguishing themselves from their Millennial counterparts. In fact, they seem to be more like their GenX parents. A GenZennial:

  • Works on group projects at school but hates every second of it.
  • Is a true digital native, and can process information quicker than Millennials but has a shorter attention span.
  • Watches more YouTube than television.
  • Knows enough about the Millennial student debt crisis to know they want no part of it, even if that means skipping college.

For someone who was born at the midpoint of her generation (1973) and happens to (still) fit every GenX stereotype, this fascinates me. It’s further proof that there is so much more to a generation than a collection of birth years. The defining moments and shared experiences are the things that so strongly influence us.

Three things Boomers can teach GenX and Millennials at work

Decades ago, there were dire warnings about the crisis that would be caused by Baby Boomers retiring en masse. The crisis was averted, thanks in no small part to another crisis called the Great Recession. Today, nearly one-third of Boomers are still working. That’s actually good news for GenX and Millennials. As Baby Boomers continue to exit the workforce, albeit at a slower rate than predicted, younger generations can take advantage of the access they have to these seasoned employees to build on their own skills. Here are three things younger generations can learn from their Boomer colleagues:

The Value of Competition

Baby Boomers were called the “me generation” for a reason. The sheer size of the cohort dictated a high level of competition that Boomers grew accustomed to and that they expressed in the workplace. Today, competition gets something of a bad rap as the pendulum swings in favor of a more team-oriented and collaborative approach to work. But competition is a motivator, and Boomers know it.

Competition became less important as Generation X came of age. They were a smaller population, so there wasn’t the same natural competition that exists in a larger group. GenX also had an independent, self-reliant streak that made them less concerned with what others were doing and more focused their own things.

For Millennials, teamwork and cooperation were valued over competition, hence the “everyone-gets-a-trophy” stereotype. Competition became viewed as something negative. But framed correctly, competition can be a strong and positive motivator.

Competition fuels innovation. It can drive employees to think strategically, develop creative solutions to problems and increase productivity.

Soft Skills

shutterstock_589025801Punctuality. Professionalism. Business etiquette. Networking. Boomers who have spent decades in the workplace expect these things. But as organizations have become more reliant on technology, “people skills” seem less relevant. To younger generations, they seem downright antiquated.

Not so. Soft skills continue to be in high demand. How important are soft skills? A recent McKinsey study reported that 40% of companies are struggling to fill jobs because younger workers lack soft skills. Employers know that hard skills on their own are not enough for employees to be successful. For younger generations, making an effort to develop soft skills can make a big impact on future career success.

Institutional Knowledge

According to a 2016 Gallup report, 21% of Millennials say they’ve changed jobs within the past year, which is more than three times the number of non-Millennials who report the same. At the other end of the spectrum, a separate 2016 poll showed that 40% of Baby Boomers have been with their employer for more than 20 years, and of those, 18% have been with their company at least 30 years.

Workplaces evolve, of course. But having a sense of organizational history, operational knowledge and key relationships is a huge advantage as companies look to the future. Expertise is expensive, and many savvy organizations have well-developed strategies for transferring the knowledge of employees getting ready to retire to the next generation of workers. For younger employees, gaining that institutional knowledge can mean having a hand in ensuring the future success of the organization.

The diversity of skills and experience in the workforce today spans five generations. From the Traditionalists to Generation Z and everything in between, each generation has unique strengths that others can learn from. Creating an environment that encourages close collaboration and mentoring across and among the different generations is a way that ensures that those strengths are maximized.

 

 

Management in Action: The Power of No

no-1532826_640In my current job, I have a saying: “We’ll never run out of ideas.” I work with a lot of very bright, creative people and while I really believe this to be the case, it’s also my code for “we can’t possibly implement every idea.”

Nor should we. Saying yes to everything can threaten a core mission and stalls innovation. Steve Jobs hit the nail on the head in 1997:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

For employees who are early to mid-career, saying no to work can feel pretty daunting. But did you know that saying no for the right reasons and in the right way could actually be good for your career? Here are three good reasons to say no at work:

It’s not strategic.

Does the work that’s being asked of you align with your organization’s strategic priorities? If your organization has a plan that clearly lays out the direction of the organization–along with initiatives, tactics and goals that support it –it’s pretty easy to answer the question. If you’ve done a quick check against the plan and the work does not appear to align, that’s a good reason to say no. Chances are you have work that unquestionably DOES align and support the plan, and taking on work that doesn’t endangers those projects.

If your organization lacks such plan, it makes determining strategic value of work much harder. (Real talk: it makes everything much harder. If your place doesn’t have a plan, become the champion for creating a plan. More on that in a future post.)

There are capacity issues.

Time, personal bandwidth and money are finite resources in the workplace, and it seems like we’re often asked to do more with less. These very real constraints mean that not everything can be a “yes”—even super awesome, totally strategic initiatives. Capacity issues can be addressed in a few ways:

  • Adding capacity: overtime, outsourcing, new hire
  • Reprioritization: projects are rescheduled or deferred
  • Project size/scope reduction: scaling down in order to free up resources

If you or your team is at full capacity and none of the above are workable solutions, yes is impossible.

It’s not your area of expertise.

Many of us want to be seen as team players at work and want to come through for the people counting on us. But if you are not the right person for the type work that’s being requested and your lack of expertise can put quality at risk, you should pass.

That’s not to say you should never step out of you comfort zone and learn new skills. If you have the opportunity to gain new experience and the work allows for a learning curve, by all means go for it. Absent of that, it’s best to recommend an alternative.

The Art of Saying No

Now that you’ve got some solid reasons for saying no at work, here are some tips on how to do it in a way that doesn’t risk your reputation:

  • Be gracious. There is a difference between saying no and telling someone to go pound salt. Someone has come to you because they think you are the best person to help accomplish a goal. Acknowledge that.
  • Be a pro. If you are unable to take on the work, be honest and straightforward about the reasons why. Many communication experts recommend communicating in person instead of email to avoid confusion and have some clear dialog.
  • Be open to a compromise. Many times “no” actually means “not now”. Is there middle ground to be had? Can capacity issues be overcome? Getting to the heart of the issue can lead to a solution that is acceptable to all.
  • Be realistic. If you work in a heavy command-and-control environment, it’s not always possible to say no. Choose wisely. Help your leaders understand the barriers that are preventing you from saying yes and be ready with solutions.

In discussing the premise for this post, a fellow GenX Manager pointed out how saying yes actually helps with saying no. He had this to say:

“If you say no for good and solid reasons at the same time you’re doing everything you can to support the requests that you can say yes to quickly, effectively, and professionally, things are a lot easier.  When you’ve demonstrated that you will say ‘yes’ whenever you can and will do your best to help someone out, it is a lot more likely that they will believe and accept your ‘no’”.

Yes.

The Management in Action series covers a variety of practical management topics that can help GenX managers strengthen their leadership skills. Got a topic you’d like to see explored? Leave a suggestion in the comments. 

The Birthday Edition: A GenX–er at Midlife

On July 8, 2017, I turn 44 years old. No big deal.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I thought I’d freak out about turning 40. I did but in a good way. I loved it. My 30s were hard—I spent that decade raising a young child, building my own career, supporting a husband through a job loss, grad school and a career change. As the chaos calmed, turning 40 felt like I could finally look to the future. Who knew that four years later, in my work with this blog, I’d be examining the past?

I was born in 1973, pretty much the mid-point of Generation X. I remember how our generation was described—slackers, cynical, angry even—and thinking, yes, that is exactly how I feel. I didn’t think we were getting a bad rap at the time. To me, it was pretty dead on.

In the time that I have been really diving deep into generational issues, I have learned it takes more than a date range to bring a generation together. It takes shared experiences or what many call “defining moments”. My own analysis is that these moments—positive or negative—fundamentally challenge a belief or change a worldview. For many Baby Boomers, the assassination of JFK is their defining moment. For most Millennials, it’s September 11, 2001.

Like most generations, GenX has many defining moments. Here are the top three that most resonate with me: 

Challenger Disaster

challengerBy 1986, space travel was pretty well established. What made the space shuttle Challenger’s 10th mission particularly interesting at the time was the fact that Christa McAullife, a New Hampshire Social Studies teacher, would be joining the crew. It was to be the first time an ordinary citizen would join professional astronauts on a mission to space, opening our imaginations to the possibility of space travel for “regular people”. Seventy-three seconds after blastoff, the shuttle exploded, killing everyone aboard.

For the many GenX-ers who watched it live, it was difficult for us to wrap our minds around what we had just witnessed. I remember shocked teachers struggling to understand and explain, trying to process their own emotions while protecting those of their students as a piece of innocence was lost.

MTV

mtvNot every defining moment is a tragedy. In 1981 MTV played The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” and everything changed. Created as an idea to reach teenagers as the largest group of consumers of music and to re-engage them with television as a medium (there was very little dedicated programming for that demographic). MTV fused music with visual storytelling and gave us access to the artists that we loved and exposed us to new ones, 24/7.

My family didn’t have cable in 1981, but when we got it a few years later, I was hooked. As a young person obsessed with music, if I was watching television, I was watching MTV.

And I wasn’t the only one. Pop culture, news and even political programming began showing up on MTV, aimed at reaching teens and young adults. In my teens and early 20s, my most trusted news sources were Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren. (MTV actually had a Peabody award-winning news department).

Never do I feel as old as I do when I turn on MTV today. Yes, I’ll watch Teen Mom OG with my daughter because she got me totally hooked, but I forget it’s the same network. For straight up music videos you have to seek out their sister stations, such as MTV2 or MTV (gulp) Classic.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

berlinwall_0On November 9, 1989, the government of East Germany announced that its citizens could freely visit West Germany, meaning that the wall that had been separating West Berlin from communist East Berlin was no longer necessary. That weekend, citizens from both sides of the wall came together to celebrate and to start tearing down the Berlin Wall.

I remember the date because I had a poster of the wall coming down hanging in my teenage bedroom. (So much for the Brat Pack for me I guess.) I also remember it because tense U.S./Soviet relations were a big part of my childhood. True, by the 80s we weren’t doing under-the-desk drills in school anymore, but I did understand that mutually assured destruction was just about the only thing keeping us from nuclear war. That’s pretty scary for a kid. So in 1989, at age 16, I thought maybe that’s something I didn’t have to worry about any more. Today, it feels downright nostalgic.

And so as I mark another successful trip around the sun, I wonder what the defining moments will be for subsequent generations. YouTube? An Obama presidency? A Trump presidency? Time will tell.

GenX-ers: What do you consider to be our defining moments? Boomers and Millennials, what about you? Reply in the comments.