Gen X women are the “forgotten middle child” in the workplace, sandwiched between the baby boomers and millennials. Each is twice as large as the gen X workforce, and often twice as vocal about their achievements.
According to data from the Development Dimensions International and The Conference Board’s Global Leadership Forecast, millennial women show a greater understanding of their future career path as leaders within their organization compared to gen X women. Millennial women leaders are also more likely than their gen X peers to indicate that they are advancing in their careers at an acceptable rate, according to the report.
“Gen X women are caught in a ‘no woman’s land’ in the workplace,” says Tacy M. Byham, PhD, CEO of Development Dimensions International, a global leadership consultancy.
It’s no surprise that gen X women feel squeezed between two generations. There were only 45 million gen-Xers born, compared to 78 million baby boomers and 77 million millennials, says Joanie B. Connell, PhD, president and founder of Flexible Work Solutions, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership assessment, development, and retention. In the first quarter of 2015, millennials became the largest generation in the workforce, according to Pew Research.
While most millennials entered the workforce during the startup revolution, a time when most corporations value innovation and entrepreneurship, gen-Xers entered the workforce in the midst of large corporate layoffs in the 1980s, or the dotcom bust in the mid-1990s. Gen-Xers “watched their parent’s loyalty and overtime rewarded by layoffs and downsizing–this may contribute to their cynicism,” says Connell.
Contributing to gen-Xers’ pessimism may be the feeling that they worked hard, did their time, and now they are “frustrated, as millennials are nipping at their heels and they have nowhere to go,” says Hannah Ubl, a generation expert at BridgeWorks, a generational consulting company. After all, it was gen X women who paved the way for work-life balance–maternity leave, nursing rooms at work, flexible hours, Ubl says–and it is often their strong commitment to family that prevents them from going after a promotion, because they feel they need to take care of their kids or their elderly parents first.
Gen X women are typically responsible for their children and their aging parents, making them the first workforce to be caregivers for both children and senior parents, says Bridget O’Connell, a regional vice president at Addison Group, a provider of professional staffing services.
“Gen X women have more life challenges,” Byham says. “Millennial women may or may not have kids, but gen-Xers have kids and aging parents. Those life circumstances become a barometer for where they want to go and how fast.” It’s not unusual, she says, for a gen X woman to put off taking a high-profile assignment or pursuing a promotion until their children are in college.
They’re also not as vocal about their achievements or their desire to be promoted as their millennial colleagues are. Instead, gen X women tend to sit back, do the work, and think, “If I do all this, I’ll automatically be rewarded,” instead of advocating for a promotion for themselves, Ubl says.
This passiveness may be the result of the environment gen-Xers were raised in. As children, they were independent and self-reliant, says Connell, because they were the first generation where both parents worked outside the home. They also were raised during the women’s movement and were led to believe they could have it all, but, once they started working full-time, they realized it wasn’t possible to have it all, she says. Millennial women, on the other hand, saw their first female Supreme Court justice and their first female secretary of state while they were children, making it seem that anything is possible.
As the baby boomers begin to retire, gen X women need to capitalize on their experience and be more vocal about their achievements, Connell says. Many millennials aren’t ready for leadership roles yet because they lack the unspoken knowledge and wisdom that gen X women have from being in the workplace for decades.
In fact, Addison Group released the results of its second annual generational workplace survey earlier this month, and found that hiring managers value relevant work experience (53%) and skills (over 50%). “Gen X women need to speak up about their achievements and capabilities,” says O’Connell.
Baby boomers put off retiring because of the great recession, O’Connell says, and now that the economy is better, they are beginning to exit the workforce. As a result, she says, companies have a tremendous need for talent. “There is not enough talent to fill those seats,” O’Connell says.
“Gen X women need to out-vocalize their millennial peers,” says Connell. “They need to step it up and realize they won’t get the promotion just because they deserve it.” Connell suggests that gen X women develop their negotiating skills and increase their expectations. Go into your boss’s office armed with message points and numbers to back up your claims, she suggests. “Ask for what you deserve,” Connell says, “not just want you think you can get.”
Lisa Rabasca Roepe writes about women in the workplace, parenting, and food and drink. Her articles have appeared in Daily Worth, Men’s Journal, Eater, SheKnows, and Yahoo Parenting.