Leslie Ungar, The Inner Brilliance of Electric Impulse, Inc.

Challenges Facing Gen X

Leslie’s Articles

Why Swim with the Sharks When You Can Stay in the Baby Pool?

For a decade Gen X had it all. They were the babies in the corporate family. Demographics and talking heads professed Gen X as the savior of the free world. Everyone: corporate, non profits, family business and the arts scrambled to figure out how to include them, promote them, reward them, evaluate them, and make room for them. That is pretty much how we spent the last decade.

Then Gen Y came into the workplace. And Gen X was no longer the spoiled baby. Suddenly they were the middle child. With middle child comes middle child syndrome. Now Gen X has to fight to be heard and fight for attention. Like any middle child they fight for their identify. Are they more like their older brother or more like their younger sister?

There are no absolute birth years in defining the generations. Members of Gen X are approximately between the ages of 30-50. Gen Y is the youngest generation in the workplace at 29 and under. Gen X is such an expansive generation that it needs to be divided into young Gen X and old Gen X. Older Gen X members have more in common with Baby Boomers and young Gen X have more in common with Y. Regardless of where X sits on the age continuum, Gen X has become the middle child.

This was evidenced in a recent conversation I had with a young Gen X. The 34-year old young professional said to me, “I’m tired of being referred to as young. I’ve been working for 12 years and I don’t consider myself as young”. She went on to say that if she never really liked the kiddie table, even when she was a kiddie. Now when she attends young professional events, she feels too old for the “young” table. So she wanted to drop “young” from her life and compete and belong with the grown ups.

In life you have the baby pool and the grown up pool. If you stay in the baby pool, you compete with your age. If you go to the big people’s pool, you compete with the grown-ups. Picture summers spent at your local club or community pool. There was always a baby pool, and next to the baby pool was the kid’s pool: close enough to the baby pool so that mothers of both babies and young children could keep an eye on both. Then you had the grown up pool that didn’t allow children. At some point you graduated to the “deep end”, the part of the pool with the diving boards that was restricted to grown ups or kids that swam really well.

Life is kind of organized the same way. We start at the baby pool. If you are under 40, one of the main values that you have to offer the world is your age. Companies, non-profits, and boards of all kinds are looking for ways to include youth. If you don’t claim your youth, what do you have to offer? Others will have more experience than you, more connections than you, and able to financially contribute more than you.

Once you leave the baby pool you have to swim with the grown ups. Why swim with the sharks when you can own the baby pool?

You are not ready to leave the baby pool until:

1. You can financially contribute equally
When you are considered “young”, you are often “comped”, other people pay for you. Everyone wants you to attend their events and boards so their organization looks less dated. So they “hire” you, they pay your way for your presence. Once you are not “young” anymore, you have to pay your own way.

2. You can make your own rain
When you are considered “young”, you get a pass for bringing in business. Everyone understands, or pretends to understand, that your value is not in bringing in business. If you want to drop the “young”, you lose the pass. You now will be expected to go out and kill what you eat. Partners etc will no longer share their dinner with you; you have to go kill it yourself.

3. Your resume can stand on its own
Once you drop the “young” banner, your resume needs to stand on its own. Did you really think you were asked to be on the board because of your vast experience? What experience? You were asked to be on the board so the board was more diverse. Perhaps you were asked so that you could contribute a different perspective. You were not asked for your experience or expertise. So if you want to drop the “young”, you better ramp up the experience. That means you need to show results. It is no longer enough to say you were at this company or in this job for x amount of years. You better have results to show for your time because that is how you will be judged as a grown up.

Before you decide to leave the safety of the baby pool, think hard. Your challenge will now be to swim with the sharks, without getting eaten alive.