Stranger Things: A Love Letter to Generation X

In honor of Season Two of Stranger Things, premiering on Netflix today. Post contains spoilers from Season One.

shutterstock_465673976In case you haven’t noticed, 80s movies are having a moment. It seems the only stories coming out of Hollywood lately, aside from superhero movies (not complaining), are reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels.

I started watching Stranger Things about this time last year, a few months after it premiered on Netflix. By the end of the second episode, my face hurt from smiling. This was no ordinary television show. Equal parts Stephen (King) and Steven (Spielberg), it was a love letter to Generation X.

From the publicity surrounding the show, I knew it took place in the 80s, but I wasn’t expecting it to feel like an 80s movie. From its totally retro title sequence to the excruciating details of the fashion, décor and music of the time, it was clear. This show was for us.

Generation X.

True, every generation has an attachment to its own pop culture. We’ll all insist that the movies, music, television, etc. of our time was the best. But pop culture has a very special place in Generation X’s heart. The advent of cable television and MTV gave us an unprecedented level of exposure to television, movies and music that, though it seems downright quaint today, left an indelible mark on Generation X.

So what a lovely surprise it was for Millennial Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer to blow a giant kiss to some of GenX’s favorite movies. Just a few of the not-so-subtle inspirations are listed here, since you can make a case that there are at least 20 more.

Theme: Kids on bikes hiding and protecting an otherworldly being from big bad government dudes.  Movie: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

I was nine years old when I saw E.T., and I remember it being one of the first movies I saw with my parents where they liked it every bit as much as I did. When the Stranger Things kids hid Eleven in the house, disguised her in a blond wig, placated her with sweets and went on to outsmart the bad guys, it was apparent that the Duffer brothers were fans of E.T. as well.

Theme: Exuberant youths on a quest.  Movie: The Goonies, Stand by Me

The tween years are a tough time. Adults will dismiss out-of-hand the idea of following a treasure map or that your friend has been kidnapped by an evil creature and is trapped in an alternate dimension. Thankfully, it’s also the time of life where you can convince your other tween friends to follow you on an adventure that will either save the day or bond you for life. Personally, the Goonies vibe for me was a little stronger than Stand By Me, though I see the connection. Maybe it was because Barb’s glasses looked just like Martha Plimpton’s. Poor Barb.

Theme: Pretty but smart/quirky/unpopular girl catches jerky popular boy’s eye while sensitive male friend who is much better suited to her suffers in silence.  Movie: Pretty In Pink, but pretty much any 80s John Hughes movie besides the Home Alones.

Perhaps I’m still smarting 30 years later from the fact that Andie ended up with Blaine and not Duckie, so I was rooting hard for Nancy to end up with the shy, sensitive boy with the great taste in music. Oh well. There’s always Season Two. Even as an adult, I did appreciate the cautionary tale in this storyline about what can happen when you abandon your friends for a boy. Poor Barb.

Theme: A portal to hell is totally in your house, and your kid is going to find it.  Movie: Poltergeist

I still can’t forget Carol Ann’s voice emanating from the television “Mmmmommmy…”. So creepy. But just like Diane in Poltergeist, Joyce is able to figure out by Episode Three that her child is trapped in some kind of evil dimension and she is damn well going to bring him back. Never underestimate the power of a mother’s love. We will pull you from the gates of hell.

Theme: Obsession that reads as crazy and drives away almost everyone you care about.  Movie: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

After Roy Neary’s encounter with a UFO, he becomes so obsessed with proving the existence of aliens that he loses his wife and kids over it. Joyce’s singular focus on proving her son is alive but in an alternate universe alienates nearly everyone around her. In both cases, however, they find someone who believes them and is in a position to help: Jillian in Close Encounters and Jim in Stranger Things.

Casting Notes

I loved that we had some 80s teen movie icons pop up for this show. Seeing Matthew Modine on screen was a reminder Vision Quest was a long time ago. And how fitting is it that GenX queen Winona Ryder is the star of the show? Whether she was playing awkward young girl Rina in Lucas, angsty tween Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, cool girl Veronica in Heathers or struggling twenty-something Lelaina in Generation X’s touchstone movie Reality Bites, she was always our Manic Pixie Dream Girl (before that was a thing).

I enjoyed Season One, but if the show were stripped of its awesome GenX-iness, I would find the plot itself kind of rudimentary. I also wonder, now that the Duffer brothers have the whole 80s thing pretty well covered, if the second season will hold less charm but more substance.

I’ll let you know later tonight.

The Side Hustle: Not Just for Millennials

Say hello to the side hustle.

Not to be confused with “a second job”, the side hustle is more than just a way to make some extra cash. It’s also a way for people to pursue a passion, stretch creative muscles or build new skills. Thanks to platforms like Freelancer, TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft and Airbnb, the gig economy is here and thriving.

Depositphotos_69202269_s-2015Over 44 million Americans have some form of income to supplement their day-to-day earnings. Twenty-eight percent of people with side hustles are Millennials and for good reason. Millennials entered the workforce burdened by crushing student loan debt during a period of slow economic recovery and full-time employment was hard to come by. Another reason, perhaps even a stronger one, is that the modern American workplace was not meeting their expectations as a flexible, collaborative, purposeful environment in which Millennials could see the direct impact of their work, so they decided to take matters into their own hands.

This is catching the attention of older generations who have been in the workplace longer and who might feel like a cog in a corporate machine. With their heightened expertise and experience, GenX and even Baby Boomers are redirecting their well-honed skills towards enterprises that they themselves can control.

Certainly, the Millennial-as-entrepreneur narrative is a powerful one. The Zuckerbergs, Spiegels and Cheskys of the world make it seem like every 20-something whiz kid is building a global empire. The truth is that the number of people under 30 who own a business has fallen by 65 percent since the 1980s and is now at a 25 year low. According to the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank focused on education and entrepreneurship, the average age for a successful startup-founder is about 40 years old, and the 55-65 age group shows the largest increase in entrepreneurial activity in the last 20 years.

Why the shift? Increased entrepreneurism and the rise of companies built on the gig economy offer something that may be more important than money and that nearly all generations of workers seek: autonomy.

Whether it’s control over schedule, project prioritization or simply how the work gets done, higher levels of autonomy tend to result in improved job satisfaction.  When employees have greater responsibility for their work, it leads to increases in the quality of work, motivation and happiness, along with decreases in employee turnover.

Uber’s recent driver recruitment campaign capitalizes on that desire to have more control over our time and our lives. In the ‘Side Hustle: Earning’ spot, the driver moves effortlessly from her day job (working) to driving for Uber (earning) to a variety of leisure activities (chilling). The repetition of “work-earn-chill” shows a life lived on the driver’s own terms.

That’s a concept that transcends generations, and the growing number of entrepreneurs and those participating in the gig economy bear it out. Thirty percent of American workers were self-employed in 2014. In 2016, 34 percent of the American workforce were freelancers, and that number is projected to be 43 percent in 2020.

In my day job, I have worked with many freelancers and entrepreneurs, many of whom transitioned to their current roles from established corporate enterprises. They’ve been candid about the fact that the workload is much heavier—not only do they provide their specialized skills to the marketplace, but they also must spend time (and money) marketing, booking business, record-keeping and doing other work that takes them out of their area of expertise. But they’ve also shared that the freedom to work when they want, where they want and with whom is worth the extra time and effort.

That’s how important autonomy is to people, and that’s a lesson that Corporate America can learn in order to better attract and retain great people. Most organizations cannot offer complete autonomy to its employees, but even control over work schedule and location, or creating an environment that supports innovative ideas at all levels of the organizations—these are things that start to get at the heart of what’s missing for many workers these days, and why they’ll work harder and longer to find it.

Readers: do you have a side hustle, or have you thought about starting one? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

GenX Management In Action: Staying Motivated

MotivationI recently attended a leadership development session about leading high performing teams. During the session, the facilitator put up a slide with a wide variety of famous people known for being the best in their areas of expertise. The photos ranged from Michael Jordan to Mother Theresa to Brené Brown to Johnny Cash. His point was that great teams are a combination of people who each bring their unique strengths to the team. Pointing to the slide again, the facilitator asked, “And what do our employees expect from us?”

In one of those moments where the words that pop into your head are simultaneously spoken aloud, I said, “They expect us to be all of these.” The facilitator nodded in agreement.

In the moment, I understood how that kind of expectation is unfair and unrealistic, yet totally true. When we strive to do our very best and set an unattainable goal of perfection, it’s as disappointing for us as it is for our team. For GenX managers who might be in mid-level positions who are feeling this pressure from below in addition to the daily pressures from above, it can be difficult to stay motivated. However, there are simple actions that tap into those GenX superpowers that can keep Generation X managers’ heads (and hearts) in the game:

  • Control what you can control. We former latchkey kids were raised to be pretty self-sufficient, and as a generation we continue to value autonomy. Many workplace frustrations stem from the fact that there are many organizational decisions, policies and practices that are simply out of our control. Instead of dwelling on what can’t be controlled, spend time on what can be. Is there a new initiative that your team can take from start to finish? Can a process be improved? Enjoy autonomy where you have it.
  • Challenge yourself. That same GenX self-motivation has allowed us to build new skills throughout our careers, as we’ve had to keep pace with new technology, evolving industries and shifting market forces. Feeling stuck? Challenge yourself to learn something new or improve an existing skill. Rising to your own challenge—whether it’s directly work-related or not—is energizing. That energy has the potential to re-inspire you at work.
  • Remember your mission. When there are so many demands on your team’s time, skills and resources, it can be easy to lose sight of your original mission. Take a minute to get back to that. Pragmatic GenX managers can assess which of those competing demands help them deliver on their mission and which of those deviate. For the demands that digress, is there a way to get them to align?
  • Appreciate your team. Often, things move so quickly at work that there is little time to acknowledge team successes and appreciate the skills and attributes of individual team members. Don’t overlook this important step. Appreciation is a fundamental psychological need, and it’s been shown that employees who feel appreciated by their supervisor perform at a higher level. Give your people their props, and have gratitude for the unique strengths they bring to the table.
  • Get inspired. GenX as a generation has very strong internal motivation, but a little external motivation now and again only helps. Find out what inspires you. Go for a walk outside. Watch a TED talk. For me, listening to music is my favorite form of inspiration. The right music can power me through a workout, allow me to focus on detail-oriented work or simply improve my mood.

I acknowledge here that these are short-term solutions that might allow you to hit the ‘reset’ button on your actions and attitude—both things that give energy to your team members’ actions and attitudes. Staying motivated long term takes some deeper soul-searching as to what drives you and sustains you. Is it a sense of purpose? Making an impact? Rewards and recognition? Is there proof that you are getting those things in your current role?

Motivation ebbs and flows. Just as it’s unreasonable to embody every type of leadership style that your team expects, it’s impossible to stay 100 percent motivated 100 percent of the time. But for GenX managers in need of a motivation boost, these might rev the engine.

Readers: What do you do to stay motivated, short-term and long-term? Leave your answers in the comments below.

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. 


Looking to improve corporate culture? Get GenX involved.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

This oft-repeated pithy quote from business guru Peter Drucker might cause you to roll your eyes if it weren’t so damn true. Newsflash: in addition to strategy for breakfast, culture eats management for lunch, policy for dinner and tactics as a midnight snack. In other words, there is no stronger performance driver for an organization than its culture.

Corporate leaders know this. It’s why they spend money on surveys, consultants, courses and retreats trying to find ways to improve culture. In his book The Culture Cycle, James Haskett estimates that an effective culture can account for upwards of 30% of the differential in corporate performance compared to organizations that have culture issues.

You can find many differing definitions of corporate culture, but at its core, it’s the values and actions of employees that create an organization’s environment and define its practices. For organizations struggling with corporate culture issues, it’s often because those values and actions are not aligned. People aren’t walking the talk. The culture is not authentic.

Depositphotos_156857050_s-2015For leaders looking to improve organizational culture, I would encourage them to seek a perhaps yet untapped resource: your Generation X employees.

One of the most important aspects of a solid corporate culture is authenticity, and a hallmark characteristic of GenX-ers is how they value authenticity. They’ll be the first ones to point out when actions don’t align with values, or if certain initiatives feel forced or false. That’s a fine first step, but allow them to go deeper and they can help their organizations identify strengths that can drive values that employees can align behind and deliver on.

Pragmatism is another characteristic that is part of the GenX brand. It’s easy to mistake good old-fashioned GenX pragmatism for negativism in the workplace, especially when they are sandwiched in between two generations known for their idealism. Pragmatists focus on how to get things done. They can see the big picture but also potential barriers that could get in the way of success, and they tend to want to spend energy overcoming the roadblocks. Engaging GenX employees in culture improvement discussions and initiatives can lead to some “quick wins” as they can see possibilities within existing frameworks.

But what if your existing framework is what needs improvement? Generation X is an asset here too. Their influence on the modern workplace in regards to improved work/life integration, women at work and the use of technology was a paradigm shift. Pragmatic as they may be, a desire for change and improvement is as strong with X-ers as it is with other generations, including Millennials.

As an added bonus, involving Generation X employees in culture-shaping engages a generation of workers who—at this point in their career—have a significant amount of institutional and industry knowledge and experience yet may be stalled in their current roles. With Baby Boomer leaders staying in the workforce longer and Millennials quickly climbing corporate ladders, it can feel like GenX is the forgotten middle child of the workplace. Using GenX expertise for the purposes of improving workplace culture recognizes these employees as future organizational leaders who can successfully navigate an increasingly complex business environment.