Corporate America: Ignore Generation X at your Peril

Great article over at Leadership Turn about how corporations are focused on [Boom] and [Mill] and completely missing the generation most capable of helping in tough times: [X]. I love this quote:

Let me spell this out.
The economy will turn around.
The Boomers may stay in the workforce for now, but they will retire.
Gen Y is being held back because of the economy and may never catch up, certainly not fast enough to run American enterprise when the Boomers retire.
That leaves Gen X, which is being ignored.

I totally agree that this is the sort of thing that will come back to bite them in the future.

Lost Generation Veteran Gets Respect

The world’s oldest man, Henry Allingham, died on Saturday in a nursing home. He was born in 1896, making him a member of the “Lost Generation” (born 1883-1900) that fought in WWI. The Lost Generation is similar in character Generation X (born 1961-1981) in that they were/are individualistic, pragmatic and tough. For example, Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown had this to say about Henry:

“He was a tremendous character, one of the last representatives of a generation of tremendous characters.”

This stands in stark contrast to what people would say about the generation following the Lost: the GI Generation (born 1901-1924) who are referred to as being heroes rather than “characters”. The GI’s are known as “The Greatest Generation” while the Lost Generation were the wild youth of the “Roaring 20’s” and although many fought in WWII, they were often the grizzled leaders (think Tom Hanks’ character in “Saving Private Ryan”) rather than the noble young warriors.

This bears a strong resemblance to today’s Generation X. We certainly are not looked up to as heroes and are often accused of being the cause of many of our current social ills. But I believe our generation will be instrumental in building a new foundation for our society. Although Millennials (born 1982-200?) will be fighting on the front lines and get most of the glory, Generation X’ers will be doing the dirty work and heavy lifting of change in our society.

I also think it’s likely that we will eventually get a grudging respect, as Henry and his generation now have. Fifty years from now we will be remembered as the tough elders who were willing to take the worst of these troubled times on the chin. We will be remembered as “characters”, which is fine with me.

For more on how the cycle of generations repeats, see the “Start Here” section of my blog.

@guykawasaki: Generation X Blogs

A little while ago I posted an open letter to Guy Kawasaki asking him to add an Alltop group for Generations. @JenX67 added on with a suggestion for a Generation X(born 1961-1981) category (Boomers already have a category). Guy responded and asked that we put together a list of good Generation X blogs and he would make it happen. Here is our list (in no particular order):

If you need writeups on why each of these deserves to be on the alltop list of Gen X blogs, we can provide. But suffice to say that they are great examples of “Blogs about Gen X, by Gen X” and they do our generation proud!

If you need more than this list, let us know and we will dig up some more worth Generation X blogs.

The Seasons of Generations

I was really impressed with Jessie Newburn’s post about how children during the different “seasons” of the generational cycle. Her post on “The Terrible Octomommy” (Go and read it now!) does a great job of explaining how attitudes toward child-bearing and child-rearing have changed over the last 80 years. It inspired me to do a short video explanation of the concept. There will be more refined versions of this to follow, but this first one is meant to introduce the concept of the turnings and the children that are reared during each part of the cycle.

BTW, both Jessie (follow here on Twitter as @JessieX) and I use the generational research of William Strauss and Neil Howe as guides for our work. You can learn more about their research at Lifecourse.com. If you want a basic primer on the research you can look at my “Start Here” section.

7 Myths about Generation X

There a myths and misconceptions about every generation, and Generation X (born 1961-1981) is certainly no exception. From our early life growing up amid the social chaos of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s, we were the original “latch key kids” who had to learn survival skills early. Now entering midlife we have seen a lot of difficult times and they don’t seem to be getting much better. One of our greatest challenges is the negative reputation our generation has gotten over the years, much of it undeserved. Here are the top misconceptions about Generation X:

  1. We are slackers
  2. Although many of us may aspire to be slackers, most of us really never had that choice (or at least not for long). Most Gen X’ers had to make their own way very early with little help from parents or society, so yes, we had lots of dead-end jobs and 7 year University terms. But “slacking” is equal parts not giving a damn AND not working hard. We are excellent when it comes to effectiveness: we know how to focus on the most important tasks to get things done. I heard this joke in reference to the difference between Boomers and Generation X: A Boomer says “You are lazy, I put in over 60 hours a week at my job”, X’er replies, “Yeah, that’s a shame that you work so slowly”.

  3. We are selfish
  4. The size of the tribe that we care about may be smaller than for previous generations, but we definitely don’t care only about ourselves. For many Gen X’ers we put our families and close friends above our own personal needs. This can have it’s own negative side effects, like our over-protective nature as parents. Selfish is better than self-indulgent (Boomers), IMHO.

  5. We have no ideals
  6. We grew up surrounded by talk about ideals, so yeah, we are a bit tired of talking about them. Our generation wants to know how we can realistically change society for the better. We don’t see missing the ideal state as a failure and are willing to compromise ideology for practicality. But that does not mean we don’t have ideals.

  7. We are cynical
  8. Pragmatic is a better description, although we can be jaded at times. The biting cynical sarcasm of our generation’s comedians is one way we let off steam, but it does not mean we think the world is doomed. Boomers have a lock on pessimism, Millennials on optimism, so we just go with realism instead.

  9. We only care about money
  10. Again this is about our pragmatism. Maslow’s heirarchy of needs includes a bunch of things that require (at least in our society) some degree of financial stability. Much of our generation has never achieved that financial stability and so we do tend to focus on money. Some of us do forget that past a certain point that money is not going to bring more happiness, but after so many years of scrambling to make it on our own, it’s hard to find fault with that.

  11. We hate our parents
  12. Our parents are mostly Silents (born 1925-1942) and Boomers (born 1943-1960) and we do have a rocky relationship with both generations. But many of our parents were quite loving and caring, although they were focused on other things during our childhood. Most of us have no problem seeing our parents as equals and are willing to forgive them for their failings. There are plenty of examples of Boomers harshly judging their X’er children which, given how we were treated growing up, is particularly ironic.

  13. We don’t like Millennials (Gen Y)
  14. Yeah, we are the middle managers having to deal with these somewhat spoiled kids entering the workforce, but many of our children are Millennials (born 1982-200?) as well. It may take us a while to adjust to the style of Millennials, but we are more likely to understand what they are about than the Boomers who see them as the next Hero’s that will save our society (or the generation that will ruin it). Again our pragmatism is going to see us through: give us a little time with Millennials and we will figure out the way to get the best performance out of them. Barack Obama (a Gen X’er) certainly has.

Neil Howe talks about Generations

Neil Howe spoke about his book “The Fourth Turning” on a radio show in October of 2008. The show is up on Youtube for your listening pleasure.

Neil Howe spoke about Generational cycles in a radio show in October 2008. It’s a total of about two hours, and well worth a listen of at least the first few segments (it’s divided into 10 minute segments because of Youtube limitations). All are below:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Part 8:

Part 9:

Part 10:

Part 11:

Part 12:

Is the Millennial Generation a bunch of Cylons?

Battlestar Galactica is a modern myth, in the vein of the original Star Wars. Each generation is represented in the series, including the Millennials.

Spoiler alert: If you have not watched any of Battlestar Galactica, or have only watched the first season, there are plot spoilers to follow.

“The cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan”

I was watching the first few episodes of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica last night and got to the point where they find the “map” to Earth in the form of the 12 zodiacal constellations. Until that point I had been seeing the story as a myth that portrayed the Cylons as the believers in the “One True God” (e.g. Christians) vs. the humans who believe in a multi-pantheon (e.g. New Age Spiritualists). Others have said that the humans represent the United States and the Cylons represent modern terrorists. But last night I realized it might be a more subconscious modern myth that symbolizes the current living generations.

Science fiction has a history of taking on social concepts, from Star Trek with it’s strong social themes to Star Wars which was profiled by Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell as the modern telling of the Hero’s Journey. Thinking in those terms, of the mythical meaning of the Battlestar Galactica, (which is produced and directed by Boomers and X’ers), I couldn’t help but wonder if the battle going on right now between the generations is represented in the story.

Let’s look at the current living generations and then compare with some of the characters.

  • Silent Generation: Born 1925-1942. This group is starting to fade from prominence right now, but they had a reputation as being an expert, if overly conservative generation.
  • Boomer Generation: Born 1943-1960. Moving into elder leadership now, this generation represents the “Prophets” who have a strong vision of the future and will argue their opinions to the death.
  • Generation X: Born 1961-1981. Moving into midlife right now, this generation is practical and pragmatic, but often cynical. They are individualistic and do not particularly care for large institutions or dogmatic leadership.
  • Millennial Generation: Born 1982-200?. Moving into young adulthood now, this generation is optimistic, empowered, team-oriented and at times a bit arrogant about what they will accomplish.

For those of you that are fans, can you see the connection between the various characters now? The Silents are not well represented, but the other groups are definitely in there.

adamaroslin

For example, Bill Adama, commander of the Battlestar and President Laura Roslin are both of the elder generation, similar to the Boomers. They are highly opinionated and have their unshakable vision in what needs to be done. The President literally believes that she is a prophet, destined to take the human race to a new and better future. Adama is driven by a desire for honor and order as prescribed by his military background. Both are willing to attack each other to defend their view and control of the future. That, in a nutshell, is the attitude of the Boomer/Prophet generation. Strong opinions, a visionary view and and a righteousness in the face of adversity.

starbuckapollo

The Commanders’s son, Lee Adama, whose call sign is Apollo, as well as Starbuck (and many more of the crew) are all much more pragmatic in their approach. Although they will take sides if forced to, they judge everything by it’s practical implications. Starbuck is a loner, alienated from most of those around her. Even though Apollo is the golden boy son (hence his call sign) of the Captain, he refuses to believe in the Commander’s ideals. This is very much in character with Generation X, a generation that is practical, pragmatic and don’t really care about ideology or following rules. They are the nomad generation.

millennialcylons

So that leaves the Millennials. They are represented by the evil Cyclons. The Cylons believe in “One True God”, one perfect ideal that they must create. They are literally “of one mind”, having a serious case of group think. There are only a few models of Cylon, and that means that they mostly think alike. They work together flawlessly as a team and are moving towards creating a world based on their singular vision. They are optimistic (perhaps overly so) about their future and see their success as pre-ordained. This represents the stereotype of the Millennial generation quite well. Millennials are generally seen as having a strong civic nature, a desire to rebuild society based on their ideals. They also work together very well and tend to be optimistic and at times arrogant about the likelihood of their success. They are the “Hero” generation, but clearly not portrayed in that light in the series.

The interesting thing to note if you buy that characterization is that the Cylons are considered EVIL and are out to destroy the entire human race! What does that say about the Millennials? It actually says a lot more about the Gen X/Boomer bunch that created Battlestar Galactica than it does about the Millennials. Although even by the start of season two there are some humans who are starting to sympathize with the Cylons, they are still very much considered the enemy. The same can be said for the attitude of many Gen X’ers and Boomers towards Millennials. There are a few of the older generations that believe in the positive qualities of the Millennials, but most are pretty put off by what they believe is a sense of entitlement and brazenness. Books like “Dumbest Generation” and “Generation Me” point towards a belief that “kids today ain’t no damned good”. The other parallel is the idea of the Cylons being machines that look like humans. The Millennial generation is also categorized as being the “digital” generation, networked to each other through their devices and constantly in communication with each other.

I think that Battlestar Galactica is a good example of the sort of modern myth that Cambpell and Moyers identified years ago in Star Wars. The first Star Wars series was really about the path of the Boomers (think Luke Skywalker) overthrowing the GI Generation (think Darth and the empire). Like all myths it was probably not consciously made with this connection to the current social forces, but they were embedded in subconsciously.

Should we trust the Cylon/Millennials? Like the characters in Battlestar Galactica we probably don’t have much choice in the matter. And unlike the Cylons, the Millennials ARE going to take over the world eventually (unless Boomers and X’ers figure out a way to magically extend their lives). So perhaps it is time to figure out how we can work together to build something better. Boomers and X’ers control pop culture right now and trying to feed a message to society based on their values. The Millennials have a different take and that makes those in control uncomfortable. But make no mistake, Boomers and X’ers, the Millennials will win this battle (eventually) and treating them like they are babies, less than, or unimportant will not help matters.

I haven’t seen this comparison anywhere else on the Internets. There is a book on the philosophy of BSG. There are also several analysis of the cylons as an analogy for modern terrorists, here, here and here.

I would love to hear people’s comments on the concept, but I have one request: don’t spoil the rest of the series for me by giving away plot lines beyond the first few episodes of the second season. Also, any of you generation types out there have a guess as to who represents the Silents in the series?

Linear Thinking leads to Cyclical Reality

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

— George Santayana

Many people feel that our society is falling apart and are putting great effort into bringing it back together. The problem is that when we are blind to the signs of real change, we tend to miss our target and over-correct. It is likely we will follow this same pattern in the next 10-15 years.

Generational research purports that history turns in specific cycles and by understanding those cycles we can predict what society might be like 10, 20 or even 50 years in the future. If that sounds something like hokey astrology to you, then you are probably a linear thinker. And linear thinkers are exactly what fuel the cycles that generational research is about.

The work of William Strauss and Neil Howe (including their books Generations, The Fourth Turning and Millennials Rising) all talk about the cycle of generations and the “turnings” or social periods that result from those generations. Most of their work focuses on the generations in the United States, but their theories apply elsewhere as well. The reason they apply so well in the US is that we, as a society, tend to be very linear in our thinking, which creates higher highs and lower lows in our social changes.
If you consider the chart I created to describe the cycles of generations:

basic-generations-chart

You can see a red line that curves up and down on the chart. This is meant to describe the overall cohesiveness of society during the various turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling and Crisis). At the top (for example, in 1955) society is very cohesive, with a singular worldview that tends to be very positive. At the bottom society is fractured, with complex worldviews that tend to be very negative. We have been at the bottom of this curve for a bit, but things are changing now (as the curve starts to rise during the crisis) but our linear thinking makes it hard for us to see that possibility. Our perception might look more like this:

linearchart

One example of this comes from Strauss and Howe’s book “Millennials and the Pop Culture” (which I highly recommend). Early on in the book they have a “quiz” about the trends occurring amongst American youth. This table is a shortened excerpt of that quiz. For each factor you are encouraged to state how you think the factor has trended since 1995:

Factor Up Unchanged Down
Fatal shootings in school
Abortion rate, teen wome under age 18
Violent crime rate, teens aged 14 to 19
Suicide rate, children/teens aged 18 and under
Stranger abductions of children

So what would you guess for each of these factors (the full list in the book is much longer)?

The answers are:

Factor Up Unchanged
Down
Fatal shootings in school
X
Abortion rate, teen wome under age 18
X
Violent crime rate, teens aged 14 to 19
X
Suicide rate, children/teens aged 18 and under
X
Stranger abductions of children
X

How did you do? Many people in our society would guess the exact opposite: that all these factors have been, and are, increasing. Part of that is because of media reporting, but the larger responsibility is the fact that we can’t help extrapolating in a straight line from our past. In the years BEFORE 1995 we saw a consistent increase in the factors mentioned in the chart. Because of this we assume that this trend will continue even when the statistics tell us otherwise.

This tendency to believe that when things are bad that they are only getting worse creates a strange dynamic in society. The feeling that our society continues to fall apart make many people (particularly young people such as the Millennial generation born 1982-2005) fight hard to change the direction of society. This is important and admirable, but failing to recognize when change is actually occurring makes it so we overshoot our target.

A good example is the Awakening of the 1960’s. The rebellion by the Boomers (born 1943-1960) against the “establishment” (the GI Generation born 1901-1924) started the fragmentation of society. This continued for the next 20+ years and got more extreme at every turn because we failed to recognize that society had indeed changed! Many people continued to push for further change, for further breaking down of institutions and for further individual freedoms. The pendulum swung completely to the other side, and then well beyond! Because the rebellious Boomers (and pragmatic X’ers) refused to recognize the damage that this breakdown was causing, it went too far. And this was caused by linear thinking that said, “We need to break down every institution and rule to the point there are none left that anyone can trust”.

The same thing will happen again as part of this crisis, but in the opposite direction. As people pull together to deal with the heightening crisis, we will become more cohesive as a society. But the fears fueled by so many years of institutions being challenged will make organizations and individuals so passionate that they will shoot way past the balance point. We will come out the other side an extremely ordered and cohesive society, but it will be TOO ordered, TOO singular and it will fuel the next rebellion.

This is the reason I believe understanding the generational cycles is so important. Accepting the cyclical nature of society gives us perspective on current and future events. Being able to see when change is occurring is difficult, but it will definitely help us avoid the extreme highs and lows which are caused by linear thinking.

Does Generation Jones Exist?

A recent article in USA Today has popularized the concept of a “Generation Jones” born between 1954 and 1965. The idea is that there is a generation between The Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Generation X (born 1961-1981) that has traits of both but does not really feel it belongs to either. Although the concept is gaining in popularity as many people born during the Jones timeframe feel it resonates with them, I wonder if the concept really has much value.
The dates I mention on this blog for the timing of generations is drawn from the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, who are well known for their work on generations. Their landmark book “The Fourth Turning” gives clear definitions of the cycle of generations and how they have evolved in the US over the last 500 years (going back to England). The value of their research is partially in understanding our personal roots (“Oh, now I understand why my Boomer friend acts like that…”) but more importantly in understanding the direction of our society overall. My question about Generation Jones (and other divisions) is whether it helps in that effort or just confuses.
Here is a chart showing the roll of generations since 1900 (click on it for a bigger version):
jones1-01
According to Howe and Strauss, the marks between each generation are very clear and are based on their surveys of people born in these years. Each generation has a specific character, and these are shown on the chart by the various colors (the “archetype” for each of these generations is shown in the legend on the right). The concept is that, for the most part, each generation is about 20 years (give or take) and they follow each other in a specific pattern (Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad and so on). This pattern has (mostly) held true for the last 500 years of history, although some of the timeframes vary by a few years. If you accept this theory, at least in part, it allows you to extrapolate into the future based on the ages and attitudes of the generations that will be alive. I go into this concept further in my two presentations on turnings and generations (Part 1 and Part 2).
But it does seem fairly unlikely that EVERYONE born in 1961 would have an “X” attitude when compared with EVERYONE born in 1960, who would have a “Boomer” attitude. But I don’t think that is the point. Let’s look at an analogy.
In 1984 Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in the race for the Presidency against Walter Mondale. Mondale got only 13 Electoral votes vs. 525 for Reagan, in what, I believe was the most lopsided victory in US History. But what was the Popular vote? The result was around 59% to 41%. Again a strong majority, but it does mean that over 37 Million people wanted Mondale to be president. Without going into how silly our electoral system is, I think there is a parallel to how we perceive the change in generations.
Let’s look at that chart again, but this time with Generation Jones put on top to show the span of years.
jones2-01
It falls fairly neatly in the span between Boomer and X’ers on Howe and Strauss’ system. There are probably many people in this period that feel like they favor either Boomer or X’er attitudes, or perhaps feel like they combine both. But the important thing is that a balance point is reached where over 50% of people would favor the attitude of one generation or the other. Just like in the 1984 elections, when grouped together this slight shift in the balance can have large effects on our overall society.
Perhaps the more accurate chart should look something like this:
jones3-01
With a gradual shift from one generation to the next, but a “tipping point” that results in a large perceived shift in generational attitude. This would explain the “Generation Jones” effect (along with other theories that break the generations down even further), as the period of transition lines up with that proposed generation:
jones4-01
I am a Gen-X’er (born 1966), and I fit the generational stereotype in that I am very pragmatic. The value I see in this generational research is in understanding where, as a society, we are going based on where we have been. Breaking down the system into smaller parts may make many feel they can identify with the roles more clearly, but I am not sure if it helps our predictive ability. So its not that I doubt that many people born between 1954 and 1965 feel they are caught between generations, its just that I am not sure that clarifies where our country is going in the future.

Gore figures out how to upset Gen-X Parents

Want to know how to really upset parents of Millennials? Ask Al Gore, who managed to do just that by suggesting that teenagers not listen to their parents.
This video from Glenn Beck’s show, which was recorded by one of the kids at the conference, and her father (probably a Gen X’er) was upset enough to go on the show and talk about it. This has been making the rounds at lots of conservative blogs, many of which are comparing Gore’s statements with indoctrination of Nazi youth. As a die-hard liberal, I don’t buy the politics here, but I think the generational aspects are fascinating.
It’s not surprising that a Boomer (Gore) would suggest that kids rebel against their parents. That was the approach of the entire generation – knock down the institutions built by their parents (the GI Generation). But he made a HUGE mistake in thinking that this generation of kids (Millennials) and their parents (Gen-X and some Boomers) would react well to trying to divide them. Gore could definitely use some generational coaching.
This is very much part of the battle that will unfold over the next 10 to 15 years as various Boomers try to convince the Millennials to follow their particular ideology. Asking them to rebel against their parents is unlikely to work (as the Millennials are generally very close to their parents), but that won’t stop Boomers from trying. The reaction of the Gen X parent is very typical as we tend to be a fairly over-protective bunch and don’t want representatives of institutions telling us how to parent.
How could Gore have changed his approach to make it more likely to be heard? He could have appealed to the kids sense of purpose and tendency to want to work together. By saying something like, “We are all counting on you, the young people, to help change the world for the better. Your parents are counting on you. I am counting on you. The problems are big, but if we work together we will overcome them. And all of you will be a big part of that success.” By putting a positive message and tying their parents into the equation, he could have really gotten them on board. But, instead, he’s being accused of being an evil Nazi overlord.

Here’s the actual video: