Whatever became of Generation X?
In all the talk about juggling the values and needs of different age groups in the same workplace, the focus has been on cashed-up baby boomers requiring respect for having put in the hard yards, and tech-savvy millennials who want it all now lest they flit off to a better offer.
But sandwiched in between is another layer of workers: those born between 1965 and 1980. So-called Generation X.
The descriptor was popularised by Canadian writer Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel about disaffected youth, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. These days, Coupland seems less convinced of his subject’s exceptionalism:
“In as much as there is a Gen X, it’s paying for school bills for their kids and nursing care for their parents. There’s not much free time to be either pro or anti-establishment,” he says in a BBC interview.
It suggests that the characteristics ascribed to particular generations are like shifting sands. Are demographic definitions mostly marketing spin?
Julie Cogin, a professor and director of AGSM@UNSW Business School, admits she set out to debunk the notion of generational differences when she applied rigour to what began as “hobby research”.
“I conducted the study across five different countries and collected data over different years to see how changes emerged,” Cogin says.
“I thought generation differences were explained by life cycle. As you acquired a mortgage and had children you would adopt the characteristics of the next generation, and as you reduced work and retired you would shift again. I was proved right in some ways, but also proved wrong in other ways.”
And the key finding?
“There are distinct characteristics that belong to age groups, which don’t change over time as their life cycle alters.”