One of the most persistent stereotypes levied at GenX’ers (well, past that whole “we’re slackers” bit) is that we are fearful (and resistant) to change, although change has often been unceremoniously thrust upon us. Shifting economic climates, a “downsizing” or a crisis of character have all forced GenXers to pivot, tweak or wholly transform, but not without a bit of resentment.
The consequences of this generational – whether real or imagined – stereotype are not insignificant, manifesting as a general malaise about the future. Some GenX’ers feel stuck personally and professionally, but something keeps them locked firmly into the status quo.
Has this become a self-fulfilling prophecy for Gen X? Are they trapped by their own discontent, or is reinvention by choice and circumstance simply not acknowledged by outsiders looking in? To explore these questions and more, we turned to our Gen X Think Tank and started asking the tough questions.
Our panel included:
- Mark Babbitt, CEO of YouTern. Maybe a boomer and maybe a “cusper” GenXer, depending on who you ask.
- Bob LeDrew, communications consultant at Translucid Communications
- Jennifer Windrum, CEO/Founder of SMAC! Sock Monkeys Against Cancer
- Matt Kennedy, mid-range GenX’er in the midst of his own reinvention
- Ryan Pannell, CIO of Synergis Capital Management
- Charlene Jaszewski, communications consultant and UX editor-by-day and marshmallow slinger-by-night
- Hessie Jones, CEO of ArCompany
You can see the full hangout in its entirety below, or read on for our recap:
Following some initial introductions and light-hearted banter about the “Canadian-ness” of my attire, Hessie Jones set the stage with a few juicy, albeit controversial comments regarding the GenXer-in-flux:
- GenXers – those born between 1965 and 1980 — are now reaching middle age. As the oldest of GenXers start to turn 50, they enter the age where things typically begin to change. In standard midlife crisis mode, would GenX be changing their lifestyle, living their dreams, breaking new ground in their careers, or simply cutting loose and traveling the world?
- After the release of “Slackers” in 1991, journalists began pointing a critical finger at GenX’s emerging adults, saying they were reluctant to grow up and “disdainful of earnest action.”
- Business management texts define this generation as being adaptable but reluctant to make decisions. Meanwhile, GenXers are being asked to step up and take leadership roles as Boomers are beginning to retire from C-Suite positions.
- Susan Gregory Thomas writes in her memoir “In Spite of Everything” that many GenXers are “always living in a state of triage, always in a survivalist mode. We’re not thinking long term.”
Ready or Not, Here Comes Change
Jokes about the midlife crisis aside, understanding how to frame change at the generational and personal level is fundamental to cracking the persistent “slacker” stereotype levied against members of Generation X. The panel came to a quick consensus that stereotypes are largely bunk and it’s their collective responsibility to dismantle them.
They also determined that reinvention doesn’t happen on a whim, but it can come at a cost.
Bob LeDrew stated:
I’ve had the relative luxury of being able to reinvent myself to a certain extent at the expense of my partner because she has the ‘real job’….This process of reinvention is, as necessary as it is, is going to be much more costly for individuals and families.
Charlene’s response was particularly interesting, because it gets to the core of this discussion: is real-with-a-capital-R reinvention a luxury for those of means? There’s a fundamental difference between career tweaks, like adding to a skillset, versus taking on entrepreneurial risk and hanging a proverbial shingle.
But as Ryan pointed out, we need to differentiate between strategic reinvention versus an ill-conceived shotgun approach.
So what triggers reinvention?
As Mark noted early in the conversation: any study which lumps 82 million people into a single persona is, well, bovine excrement. The panel agreed that reinvention comes in response to significant life changes, ranging from layoffs, dissatisfaction with a chosen career path, or dealing with an illness.
The Manifesto Moment
Remember that scene in Jerry Maguire where Jerry, disillusioned by the backhanded deals and questionable moral compasses of his fellow sports agents, issues a manifesto to change the culture and gets promptly canned? Reinvention is not without peril.
The need to create or catalyze change for ourselves — and, by extension, our respective industry — emerged as a common thread. I defined this as a way of being change that causes shifts in the ways we approachedour work, our connection to our communities, and the dent we wanted to put into the universe.
Jennifer recounted her personal shift from journalist to public relations professional to social entrepreneur. SMAC! produces sock monkeys to comfort people undergoing treatment for cancer.
Making the change from PR to becoming a cancer advocate and social entrepreneur happened because of my mom’s battle with lung cancer.
At the level of personal reinvention and change, the need to make a difference was key; as Gandhi said so eloquently, “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” The desire to positively impact the world has typically been labeled a Millennial trait, but here it was popping up in a group of GenXers. Note that this is a thread that also ran deeply through Boomers in their younger years.
The Rise of the Accidental Entrepreneur
We spent a considerable portion of our conversation really digging into entrepreneurship. The idea of the pivot is well-known in start-up circles, but what if we could apply that same philosophy to reinvention and building businesses?
The panel was largely a group of self-employed professionals, but launching their own businesses ddidn’t come with a blue print — it sorted of happened, born of reinvention predicated by change. A fortuitous discovery, but not all that surprising when having to adapt to an ever-changing set of circumstances is one of the hallmarks of GenX.
Slackers? Not likely. GenX is too busy building things and making their own way.
- This GenX panel isn’t fearful or resistant to change at all; change offered the opportunity for reinvention.
- Reinvention doesn’t carry a single definition for this group — nor should it. Each member viewed reinvention from their own unique vantage point, but could trace it back to a single moment personally or professionally that prompted the reinvention
- Idealism turns to the practical. This panel of GenXers viewed their employment as a service agreement of sorts. Spending an entire career in one company or even a single industry is anathema; Millennials are not the first generation to realize that 40 years at one company was not part of their future.
- Introspection and self-reflection led to more meaningful shifts in ‘ways of being’ than external changes like the economy or a layoff.
- Reinvention might not happen on a whim, but it does carry a level of risk. When reinvention involves building a new business, there are financial compromises and shifting roles in personal relationships to consider.