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The Future of Work

The Hidden Reasons Why Gen-Xers' Career Prospects Are Rising

This futurist explains why her generation isn't just next in line for retiring Baby Boomers' jobs but uniquely poised to take them.

[Photo: Jetta Productions/Getty Images; App Photo: Universal Pictures ("Do the Right Thing", 1989)]

I got into Northwestern University despite far-from-perfect SAT scores and missing the valedictorian spot by one grade. If I were a millennial, I would have had much longer odds. Born in 1976, I’m a late Generation X-er and have had less competition for everything pretty much all my life.

You’ve heard of Generation X. Due to plummeting fertility rates, the media called our birth years the "baby bust." Gen X includes those born between 1964 and 1979 and is bookended by the massive baby boomer generation (those born 1946–63) and the even more massive millennial generation (those born 1980–95). Historically, we’ve either been ignored or called slackers by pop culture and advertisers.

But we’re more influential in the modern workforce than we tend to get credit for and are about to become more so. And if the coming baby boomer exodus from the workplace is just revving up and Gen-Xers are next in line to fill the roles boomers retire from, it won't just be a sheer numerical advantage that plays to our favor. Here's why.

Filling A Communication Skills Gap

While these are sweeping and probably unfair stereotypes, you don't have to look far to find organizations urgently prodding their more senior employees to get with the technological program. Meanwhile, hiring managers and recruiters are pointing to a "soft skills" gap among recent grads and championing emotional intelligence as a job skill.

So while millennials may be unfairly caricatured as socially inept much the way boomers are wrongly dismissed en masse for poor technical chops, the trends in companies' staffing needs are unmistakable. Gen X-ers, on the other hand, may be more likely to prove communication maestros by comparison.

We grew up socializing without devices in our hands. Whether it was learning to cope with the neighborhood bully or sweet-talking our parents into letting us stay home alone while they went on vacation, many of us knew how to use words and persuasion to problem-solve and solicit cooperation.

Anna Garvey at Social Media Week called Gen X the "Oregon Trail generation," referencing the 1980s adventure game that had millions of kids glued to their schools’ desktop computers. The idea was to get your wagon to Oregon before you lost all your oxen or died of disease. Oregon Trail and games like it showed us how to tinker with this new and strange technology and become masters of the machine.

Heading off to college and our first careers, the electronic age really started heating up. As Garvey aptly put it: "We came of age just as the very essence of communication was experiencing a seismic shift, and it’s given us a unique perspective that’s half analog old school and half digital new school."

To be sure, not every Gen Xer grew up the same way or acquired the same skills through their experiences. But our careers have tracked the rise of the digital workplace, and the foundation that's given many of us may pay dividends in helping us navigate the boomer brain drain.

In my first job at a PR agency in New York City, I dealt with issues typical of the alienated, twenty-something X-er. I struggled with how to meet people who could help me do my job, and how to talk to my boss about getting a raise.

But I was the only person in the office who knew how to use a search engine. I learned to survive in the boomers’ business world, but I also helped usher in the "tech everything" one that millennials would soon populate. I developed a useful hybrid of offline and online communication skills, easily shifting from one medium to the other.

When workplace clashes occurred, I understood where the boomers were coming from but also intuitively "got" the millennials. Eighteen years later, that role as a bridge still serves me well. Every day, as I serve as a translator and perform mediation and mentorship duties for boomer and millennial colleagues and clients alike. In the process, my skills as a leader of a multi-generational workforce only increase.

Of course, I'm just a sample of one. But the research seems to suggest that many other Gen X-ers share my experience. In a recent EY study that surveyed 1,200 professionals across generations and industries, Gen X scored higher than the other generations when it came to effective collaboration. In separate research published by the Center for Talent Innovation, 65% of respondents associated the "team player" label with Gen X-ers (compared to only 45% associating it with millennials).

Even if these findings don't reflect the innate personality traits shared by an entire generation—as some psychologists are quick to point out that they probably don't—they may still hint at the stage in our careers where my peers and I now find ourselves. More than that, from what we know about the skills companies need most in their new leaders, the research suggests that we're uniquely prepared for those roles—not just next in line for them.

Knowledge And Experience Concentrated In A Precious Few

Again, there's more to it than just timing. Sure, we have valuable years behind us and just as many left on the clock. But we're also invested, comfortable, and happy—crucial qualities when it comes to productivity, motivation, and performance. According to a survey by Korn Ferry’s Futurestep division, more than half of executives believed Gen X professionals are the most engaged employees on staff, compared with less than a quarter who believe boomers and millennials are most "in the zone" at work.

Although it was delayed a few years due to savings lost in the last recession, the baby boomer brain drain is real and potentially frightening. However, just as succession planning and knowledge transfer are becoming critical business issues, many millennials are bouncing around from company to company and industry to industry, still trying to figure out what to do with their lives. A recent Gallup report revealed that 21% of millennials have changed jobs within the past year—more than three times the number of non-millennials who report the same.

While there's plenty of debate as to the relative advantages and drawbacks of job-hopping, more senior managers are more likely than others to (rightly or wrongly) look askance at the practice. In the meantime, who have the first boomers making their exits been most grateful to trust? You’re looking at us. For 20 years we’ve been their "right hands."

Gen X-ers have had ample time to learn how to run a company, and it shows. Most of the respondents in the EY study (70%) believed that Gen X-ers are the most effective managers compared to boomers (25%) or Gen Y-ers/millennials (5%) generation. Members of Gen X also scored the highest when it comes to being a "revenue generator" (58% of respondents agreed), possessing essential traits like "adaptability" (49% agreed) and "problem-solving" (57% agreed).

And again, because we’re hard to come by, we’re now in the perfect position to get exactly the jobs we’ve always wanted. CEO roles are obvious, but because of the career experiences we've had—as well as our numbers—we’re disproportionately primed for success in entrepreneurial and nonprofit ventures, too.

The world of work is evolving fast. By being at the right place at the right time; serving (often out of necessity) as an essential communication bridge; and fusing knowledge, experience, and innovation, Gen X-ers pioneered many now-common developments such as portable skills, contract work, and work-life flexibility. Largely thanks to this combination, no one's better prepared, on balance, to navigate this world better than us. The generation that's grown so used to being overlooked is the one you may be seeing more of pretty soon.

Alexandra Levit is a business futurist and bestselling author who has consulted for the Obama Administration as well as Fortune 500 companies including American Express, Deloitte, Microsoft, PepsiCo, and Whirlpool. Follow her on Twitter at @alevit.

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