Generation X Think Tank: The Economy and its Impact on Jobs and Outlook

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GenX graduated from college and faced an economy that brought with it a brutal reality. The expectations of awesome career opportunities and financial stability were ripped away as we experienced one economic downturn after another.The economy continues to impact our careers today. How has GenX coped with this? How has it impacted their outlook?

In our third episode of #GenXTT, we tackled this subject and uncovered some interesting insights from our panelists:

  • Dallas Kincaid – A middle GenXer, Owner of a Technology Hosting Company
  • Durga Truex – A younger GenXer, Consultant for companies looking to launch new products, industry or markets
  • Olivier Blanchard – a middle GenXer, Founder of KGB Global and author of the Social Media ROI book
  • Amy M. Tobin – An older GenXer, VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany
  • Ryan Pannell – a middle GenXer, Serial Entrepreneur, Former filmmaker, Developer of web security technologies and currently hedge-fund manager
  • Susie Erjavec Parker – a middle GenXer, Entrepreneur and Founder of Sparker Strategy Group

You can see the Hangout in its entirety below. A full recap follows:

Since the great depression there has not been a period that has seen such consistent economic turmoil.

In the GenX “working lifetime” thus far, we  have lived through:

  • The stock market crash of 1987
  • The economic recession in the late 1980’s just when many of us were graduating from college
  • The dot.com bubble crash in the late 1990’s
  • The Sub-Prime Mortgage Fallout of 2008
  • And the ensuing Global Financial Crisis that hit major economies in Europe and and Asia

GenX was the first generation that would not do better than our parents – economically.

This past week, this news came out:   Japan has slipped into into a recession in the third quarter.  The rising sales taxes (which was meant to curb their enormous debt load) have deterred consumer spending which led to this what they’re calling “surprise recession”.

This investor poll released by Bloomberg recently saw 38% of investors surveyed relay their fears of deflation, reduced consumer spending and increasing unemployment, with a doom and gloom headline that screamed,

World Economy Worst in Two Years, Europe Darkening, Deflation Lurking

We asked our panel of GenXers:

What were the conditions like when you graduated? No one really noticed the recession when it was happening.

Ryan graduated in 1992, 1994, and 1996 and admitted he kept changing his career path. His first degree was in English Literature, then Veterinary Medicine, then in Film and Television. Ryan worked his way through university, holding down side work as a film crew member, and apprentice chef. When he graduated in 1996, he joined the work force and didn’t personally feel the recessionary impact.

Olivier came from Europe and studied in the U.S. between 1988 –  1992. Coming out of college, he immediately entered the French military for 2 years. Following that, went to Greenville, South Carolina, which had a booming manufacturing economy. There was no shortage of manufacturing jobs. While he didn’t have trouble finding work, the type of work he was looking for did not exist.

You could settle for something decent that would allow you to scratch out a living ..but there comes a point where you hit a wall. You either had to move or you had to open up your own business … or the third option (as was the case with many) you would go work for your dad.

He fell into the career of choice in marketing because of opportunities that weren’t available. Unlike Europe where your family, education and income pre-determined your career path, the US provided an opportunity to carve out your own path.

Durga graduated 1995 and like many 18 years olds, she felt invincible and wanted to take over the world. She wasn’t concerned about the economy or job market; her intent was to be a famous singer by the time she was 25.

I wasn’t in the frame of mind where I was interested in anybody calling the shots for how I was going to structure my life. I had the power to carve out my own destiny… I wanted to travel, I didn’t want to be reigned in or stuck in one place…

Durga started noticing the the economy’s impact by 2000, with bills mounting and her limited opportunities becoming more apparent.

Dallas graduated in 1989 in rural Maine, in the poorest county. Here, people didn’t have aspirations to go to college. And while he didn’t go to college, Dallas went into the radio and TV business at a young age and this opened up opportunities later. Profound events that had significance for Dallas were witnessing his parents, entrepreneurs, go through personal bankruptcies twice in their lifetime. He currently owns a technology company and dabbles in commercial real estate.

Amy graduated in 1988 and then in 1992 with a Masters of English Literature in Scotland and came back to the US and witnessed a huge recession. She was unable to find work in her hometown so she moved to Boston. She expected to work in Academia but realized she was far too outspoken for the profession so she pursued jobs outside in the Arts. For Amy, she didn’t think she had to map her whole life out. In the UK, you don’t do that unless you’re highly specialized and you are going to stick to that specialty the rest of your life. Instead, it’s about becoming well rounded, with good grades, get a decent job and then learn. Whe ended up in a sales career and that helped her through the recession.

For both Amy and Dallas, their communications backgrounds have had significant influence in their careers today.

Susie graduated university in 1998, with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Studies and History. Having worked since she was 16 years-old, Sue worked 4 jobs to put herself through school.

I knew that I had to work but I didn’t realize I had to work so hard.

The turning point came when Susie had her sons. Upon returning to work, she was jaded because of the toxic environment she encountered and decided to pursue an alternative where she didn’t have to answer to anyone. She set herself up with a decade of freelance work before launching her social media consultancy in 2011. Being an early adopter of social media, it was a risk to be a trail blazer in an industry still so nascent.

What were you expectations of financial security upon graduation?

Dallas never pursued the notion of doing anything for money. Having seen his parents go through personal bankruptcy a few times helped him develop more realistic expectations about being able to cheaply if necessary.

For Susie, having her own business [she thought] meant having control of her own schedule but it also meant she worked harder. That meant in the first 2 years, Susie created a daily routine where she was with her kids from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM and then work from 8:00 PM to 3:00AM. In that same time frame, her husband was laid off twice. Suddenly it was more urgent to “hustle” and develop a name for herself and increase more visibility for her business.

Ryan had no expectation of financial security. He didn’t expect that there would be a job waiting for him, nor did he expect that he was owed anything. His parents were both doctors and had endless opportunities of financial stability but for the areas he was pursuing, he was realistic that he wouldn’t have the same opportunities. What was clear to him as a GenXer Entrepreneur in his late 20’s was the difference between him and Boomer Entrepreneurs when it came to credit.

The boomers had access to credit… to lines of credit and small business loans. None of us [GenXers] did. It was whatever we could piece together.

Ryan was grateful he could pursue what he wanted to do. He went into IT in 1998/1999 and was helping with the Y2K implementation the year after. Fortuitously, when the bubble burst shortly after, he was already into web application development. Everything hummed along nicely and Ryan fell into financial security.

Durga talked about this “illusion” that the mass majority had assuming that education would provide her with a lifetime career. After her parents’ divorce, her mother struggled to raise her alone. Her father changed careers multiple times, broke into Academia, finished his PhD and was perpetually stressed out working almost 75-80 hours per week.

Amy attended Milton Hershey School for disadvantaged children. There was no financial stability.

I don’t think our generation ever thought we had an pathway to an easy life and retirement.

And while Amy indicated that 22 year-olds don’t think about retirement or security for life, I noted that our mindsets are shaped by what our parents had us believe about what our life would be like.

Susie concurred and in her circumstance, as a daughter of immigrants, a first generation Canadian, her parents came to Canada to give her a better life. They stressed the importance of education.

The Economy that Produced Entrepreneurs

The crash of 2008 signaled a year with the highest proportion of adults (in a period of 14 years prior) that started a business. According to this article

…for each month in 2009, 340 out of 100,000 U.S. adults started a new business. That statistic, the highest in the last 14 years, represents a 4 percent increase over 2008, or 27,000 more starts per month than in 2008, and 60,000 more starts per month than in 2007. What that means is that in 2009, 558,000 new businesses were created each month, signaling perhaps that the nation’s entrepreneurs are unabashedly paving the road out of the U.S. recession.

And while most of you [panelists] started out in corporate, all of you have become entrepreneurs today. How did that transition happen? What instigated this?

Olivier expected to be working in corporate, either an ad agency or marketing firm. He quickly realized, while the pay was getting better, the responsibilities were also increasing and the work wasn’t getting any more interesting. Olivier wants to work for an organization without necessarily being the leader.

I don’t have the entrepreneurial gene that other people have… that drive… it’s baked into their DNA. I don’t function that way. So for me going off on my own and being an entrepreneur [which is not how I would describe me] was more of a “now what” [what are my alternatives?].

So while he waits for that ideal opportunity that aligns with his own path, he has to build it himself.

Dallas asked Olivier if he could work for someone else after being an entrepreneur. Olivier responded that he was not yet comfortable being the “King” but more comfortable being the “knight.” The key is finding the right King. While there are drawbacks in the corporate environment, “The work has to be very important because it compensates for all that nonsense”.

Susie interjected that the reason GenX is moving towards entrepreneurialism is because we no longer want to put up with the BS that the C-level executives are putting out there.

Amy agreed that she could never go back working for someone else. She noted that GenY isn’t forced down the same path GenX faced at their age. She referenced the Brat Pack movies that signified the death of youth, and the death of fun.

Amy became an entrepreneur because she was laid off, and while she doesn’t want to return to corporate, she contends that there are great corporate jobs that are more flexible, are creative and pay well. She loved her career for the decade and learned a lot. “We are entrepreneurs because we have to be… it’s the world we live in now.. or you can sit around and whine over it.”

For Durga, she emphasized that she lives by the paradigm, “When you want something done you have to do it yourself.” She spoke of the fundamental dishonesty in the corporate world where there’s tendency to cover your own “behind” vs. getting things done.

I noted that being an entrepreneur also comes with it a motivation to make a difference. While I’ve saved to make it happen at this stage in my life, it’s not something I would have entertained when I was much younger.

We’re All in this Job Market Together: Boomers, GenX and GenY

The economy has turned things upside down for everyone. Boomers aren’t retiring anytime soon. Millennials are graduating with enormous debt. GenX expected to have their houses paid off by now. More importantly, we expected to have less debt at this stage in our lives. We are now all competing for the same jobs.

Dallas, feels very fortunate to have realized his success.

Ryan works in an industry that  relies on  understanding economic impacts. He  has not been negatively impacted by a recession or bubble because he wasn’t active in the areas or industries relevant to those areas. e.g. He wasn’t a homeowner when the housing market collapsed but he saw that happen to his parents. He notes that if he had still had his business in film and photography post 9/11, he would have felt the impact when nobody was spending on media. Most of his colleagues in that industry went under. Ryan was by then in corporate IT/Security and there was more than enough corporate spend allocated to this sector.

It depends if you are adaptable enough to move whatever it is that you do as an entrepreneur into an area that still has spend allocation. If you’re not, you’re vulnerable to elimination.

I responded that when we as GenXers are moving into our 40’s we expect that we’ve learned everything that we could and are at our peak. What has happened instead is that we need to reinvent ourselves to remain relevant to market demand, or become obsolete.

Durga quoted Erik Hoffer:

The learners will inherit the earth while the learned will be beautifully be equipped to live in a world that no longer exists

Durga believes Boomers have stagnated. From her perspective there is a general entitlement among Boomers, who have financial affluence. Few of her GenX peers have become financial established and must constantly hustle to stay ahead of the game. She does not believe she’ll have social security or medicaid in her lifetime. She believes:

I’m acutely aware that I will be taking care of #1 the rest of my life and I’m going to constantly figure out how to make that work

Olivier provided a different perspective. He feels that he’s always 5 years ahead of the curve and is constantly having to adjust downward to where companies’ expectations are today. And that means Boomers who are not in tune where things are today and not look forward.

While Olivier is not resentful of Boomers (because they’re just getting older so it’s a function of not staying current) he emphasized “Boomers are the brake and they’re causing things not to move forward faster”.

Boomers did not come from a culture that favoured innovation. They came from a culture of hard work and getting this done, whereas we come from a culture clothed in innovation and problem-solving.

The Future of Work: Can Boomers Embrace this Change?

Amy indicated that it’s clear that Boomers may not all be receptive to technology, but we live in a highly tech world that’s constantly evolving. It will shape the future of work.

Boomers are getting older and they still control most of the spending and the voting. How is it going to be different?

From Olivier’s viewpoint:

5 years from now there will flat organizations, start-ups and there will still be legacy enterprise companies. There will be an influx of new companies that will take over some of those Fortune 500 spots and some currently in those spots will fall into obsolescence. Change will be minimal in this realm.

As Olivier pointed out, what’s disturbing is the increasing commoditization of the work force which will:

  • allow everyone to function as a free agent
  • open up a global market that increases further competition
  • drive the prices down
  • force cost centres to be more efficient
  • force a price-driven market to squeeze out the middle-market of highly skilled vendors who are priced much higher than the low-cost producers
  • and allow a market to “settle” for products that are just “good enough” to compete

Susie rebuttled that Boomers are not reluctant to innovate. This is the generation that put the man on the moon and introduced the electric car. And while we expect that each generation reaches a plateau there is absolutely no shortage of  complacency in each generation.

Olivier disagreed and he’s indicated a wave of innovation that’s coming. Business management vs. Innovation needs to be taken into context.

It’s taken 65 years to get us from first human flight to putting a man on the moon… and we haven’t done a whole lot since… You’re talking about a very small set of people being innovators. It’s not not a boomer thing, it’s not a cultural thing. The Boomers didn’t put a man on the moon. 5,000 people put a man on the moon while everyone else was arguing whether or not black people were allowed to get a seat in restaurants.

Boomers, who want to keep their jobs are reticent to innovate will NOT move business management in step with innovation. Both forces should be moving together and instead, are breaking apart and causing dysfunction.

… and we’re seeing it in market, where people, who have fantastic, high paying jobs, are completely incapable of performing them… In the meantime you have tremendously capable people who can’t get hired, are overqualified, and have to be entrepreneurs to be satisfied. That tells me there’s something broken.

And while it’s not chalked up to a specific generation, age (complacency) can stifle any movement forward. GenX is still in their prime, continuing to learn and innovate compared to those who are 20 years older.

Insights:

The Great Recession had little impact on this group, for the most part, because they were able to find work. For some, it was being at the right place at the right time; for others the local economy had no shortage of work.

Most of our panelists are realistic about their financial future. The fact that all panelists are entrepreneurs indicates a survivalist mentality, and a motivation to self-sustain.

What these GenXers pursued in school was very different than where their careers ended up. However, any experience in their original studies was incredibly beneficial to their current circumstances.

At this stage in life, most of the panelists would hesitate to go back to a corporate environment, which stifles innovation, encourages intra-competition and reduces  productivity.  However, corporate environments that align with individual goals, compensation, and flexibility are worth considering.

While one of our panelists had a strong resentment towards Boomers, there was a general consensus that this generation had strong influence (whether in corporate C-level; voting majority; or spend) to help drive more innovation forward. However, complacency, fear of change, or immediate impact on personal security, impedes this.

 

photo credit: carnagenyc via photopin cc

Founder at ArCompany, and Co-founder of Salsa AI, Hessie is a  seasoned digital strategist, and intelligence analyst having held senior positions for top ad agencies including Ogilvy, Rapp Collins, ONE and Isobar Digital. She also has extensive start-up experience in social tech, online publishing and artificial intelligence like Yahoo! Answers, Overlay.TV, Jugnoo and Cerebri AI. Hessie is the co-author of EVOLVE: Marketing (as we know it) is Doomed! She is also  an active writer for Cognitive World, Towards Data Science and Marketing Insider Group.

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