The generation trap

2011

Three years ago, Generation X (those aged between 29 and 49) had a lot to worry about. Job instability, economic uncertainty, lack of support by the state, and non existent pensions were only some of the problems many office workers faced.

Studies carried out by Scottrade and Betterinvesting in 2008 showed that the majority of the Gen Xers surveyed feared they would never be able to retire fully. "The study shows Gen Xers are the most stressed group financially right now," said Chris X Moloney, Scottrade's chief marketing officer.

Fast forward three years, has anything changed? While the sort of mass redundancies of three years ago may be becoming less frequent, the economy remains as volatile as ever and there's little evidence that life in general is getting any rosier.

Gen Xers attitudes reflect this. A recent poll of 1,000 Americans from the Siena Institute found that more than four out of 10 Gen Xers believe they are worse off financially today in comparison to last year.

While the majority admitted that their main concerns centred around retirement and social security, only around three out of 10 seemed to have a clear plan about managing their future.

Arguably, of the three generations in the workplace today (the other two being the Baby Boomers born in 1960s and 70s, and Generation Y born anywhere from mid 70s to mid 90s) Generation X has suffered the main brunt of the economic crisis. This is the generation with young families to support, huge mortgages, mounting debt – in short, the generation that has the most to lose.

Gen Ys are young enough and, generally, have the freedom to pick themselves up and move on from financial misfortune. Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers will, for the most part, have just about escaped from the economic disaster with their childrens' college fees paid for, a manageable mortgage, and a tidy pension.

Gen X is caught in the middle of a generation trap. They have neither the freedom nor the flexibility of the Gen Y, or the chance of a secure future and a happy retirement like the Baby Boomers. They are stuck in the middle of a fluid world which demands constant change, but their circumstances restrict them from easily adhering to this new age of transience.

Many Gen Xers have grown up during the 'job for life' culture. At least one parent would go out to work every day, pick up a cheque at the end of each month and stay in the job until retirement. Thus, Gen Xers were raised to expect a measure of certainty within the work environment.

That certainty was still in place when the Gen Xers themselves hit their twenties and went looking for jobs. Of course, fifteen years ago, the workplace was becoming more fluid than in the age of the baby boomers and employees did change companies more frequently without much fear– but it was their choice.

But today's economic disaster has stripped away any lingering sense of security and replaced it with a large degree of fear which, for some, is still all-encompassing.

It is telling that only a small percentage of those polled in the survey carried out by the Siena Institute have a clear plan for the future. Many Gen Xers live in absolute fear of the changes going on around them. And fear often results in paralysis. Many feel helpless to make decisions because of the burden of their financial and familial responsibilities.

"Ever since the economic disaster, I live in fear," says one senior executive I know.

"I have spent half my life at my firm, and every day I feel under threat. My manager has just resigned after 23 years which leaves me with no air cover. A new boss has come in with his own people and others are going to get pushed out. He has no idea who I am, and I feel my job is in danger. Leaving the firm terrifies me. I have a wife, three kids, and a huge mortgage."

This is where the differences in the two younger generations really emerge. Gen Y flit from job to job without really worrying about the consequences, just as they would sleep on someone else's couch if they found themselves temporarily homeless. They have evolved in a culture full of change and are more equipped to deal with the unexpected.

The Gen X senior executive has not only been brought up in a 'job for life' culture, but he has stayed in his job for so long that he has become institutionalised. In his mind, living with uncertainty and fear in his current role is actually better than taking a leap into the unknown and going to work somewhere else. For him, the grass is never greener.

So, the future for Gen X seems pretty bleak. However, only time will tell if they will recover enough from the most traumatic economic crisis in their history to make the necessary changes to secure their own financial future, and manage to wrestle themselves free from the increasing ensnarement of the generation trap.

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About The Author

Emma Murray
Emma Murray

Emma Murray is a freelance writer with a background in investment banking. She is the author of 'The Unauthorized Guide to Doing Business the Alan Sugar Way' and 'How to Succeed as a Freelancer in Publishing' – a guide for graduates, career-changers and retired professionals.

Older Comments

There were no Baby Boomers born in the 1960s & 1970s. Nor where there any Gen Y'ers born in the 1970s. If this were so, then where do you place Generation X because you didn't in your article?

Generation X were born 1961-1975 as every generation is 14 years. This lie of having Boomers born in the 1960s and 1970s (there were none) shows us all once again another reason why the baby boomers are afraid of the natural course of life which is aging.

Gen X is also not in any 'trap' as this generation, born from 1961 to 1975 is about to become the new establishment, so please let's get our demographics facts straight shall we?

Kim

I'd agree with Kim that Gen X are at the stage in their lives where many of them will be in roles of responsibility or have reached the point where they are already part of the fabric or 'establishment' in society. But for me this piece is about whether or not they are happy or feel trapped in their lives.

I would put myself and most of my friends in this category. They range from bankers and lawyers to people who have taken an interest in politics along the way to senior executives working in the service sector or on the muti-national career ladder.

If I had to take a straw poll across this group there would be one common denominator and that would be that whilst most have 'played the game' - few if any would consider themselves fulfilled and even fewer if any believe that there could have a meaninful part to play in making the world a better place.

Most are resigned to the fact that just about the only thing they have any power over is whether or not they should continue to focus primarily on making money or whether they can either down-shift or re-structure their lives in a way that gives them more meaning. As for down the road when discussing pensions at a recent lunch - one person voiced the view that by the time we get to retirement they pensions are unlikely to exist or at least not in the way that we currently expect and another had no idea when she would be able to retire. No one around the table jumped into disagree. Sign of the times?

Claire UK

While a lot in this story is correct, the conclusion is all wrong.

Gen Xers are, for the most part, entrenched in middle-mgt positions at this point so they’re somewhat insulated. Boomers ' especially younger Boomers ' are in dangerous waters and Millennials are essentially where Generation X was in the late 1980s, that is losing traction fast with nowhere to go.

It’s a strange spot to be at and no one our age (Gen X) or younger will have any sort of job security in the coming years, but I think we absolutely do need to plan for the future as though we are going to have one and take stock in the moment, which actually offers us a lot.

RM Vanishedmessenger.com

Randy Moser