Gen X Think Tank: The (First) One About Generational Stereotypes

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In the photo are something called record albums, boys and girls. When we had these, they weren’t retro. They were what we had before cassettes and CDs. Always better than 8-tracks, though.

For our inaugural Gen X Think Tank, we discussed generational stereotypes – those about our generation in particular. We had an eclectic group who hailed from three different countries and spanned the breadth of our generation – 1965 to 1980.

I, your esteemed moderator, am a journalist, blogger and social media something-or-another, and an older Xer. I was joined by ArCompany CEO Hessie Jones, a marketer, tech geek, and writer, and an older Xer as well.

Our panelists were:

Aleksander Macasev, a native of Yugoslavia (the part that became Serbia after the war there), artist and founder/creator of Chromapost. He’s a middle-range Xer.

Helen Heath Mosher, a Virginia-based journalist, editor, and digital creative. She’s a middle-range Xer.

Angela Florez, has spent her career in the world of nonprofits on partnerships and development and lives in Phoenix. She’s a middle-range Xer.

Laurie Dillon Schalk, works in digital advertising in Canada, helping companies find marketing advantages using technology. She’s a middle-range Xer.

Ryan Pannell, retired television and film producer, now an international hedge fund manager. He’s an “angsty” (older) Xer.

Durga Truex, consults with companies looking to launch new products, industry or markets. She’s a young Xer.

Here is the full video (however, see my recap below):

We started off with brief introductions, discussing what led us to participate.

Aleksander, being from outside the United States, was interested in learning something more about the cultural differences and how these generational stereotypes and boundaries are defined across those cultures.

Hessie is the daughter of immigrant parents and lives in Toronto. She’s curious about whether there’s really a difference between who we were when we were the same age as Millennials are now and how much we’re going to end up looking like Boomers as we get older.

Laurie (whose name I kept getting wrong but I promise never to do that again!) also lives in Toronto. She’s curious to see how others define Gen X.

Ryan’s take on Gen X: “Ripped off and abandoned and now a corporate shill.”

Angela has always disliked the “slacker generation” label. “I work typically 60-hour work weeks and am really devoted to mission-oriented stuff.”

Durga said she’d seen this generational friction over and over again and thought she was the only one who thought about how much Gen X was ignored. So she wrote an essay on LinkedIn called “Letter from the Forgotten Generation“, which got more than 50,000 views and made her realize she wasn’t alone. (Note: Durga wasn’t on camera because she ended up on an unfamiliar computer at the last moment.)

“Remember the Blind Melon video for ‘No Rain’? The Bee Girl?” At the end of the video, the girl finds all the other Bee Girls. That’s what Durga felt like when everyone started commenting and reacting to her essay.

“Oh my god! There’s other bees!”

blind melon

The famous Bee Girl, from Blind Melon’s debut album. Didn’t we all have a little bit of Bee Girl in us?

Helen had her camera off because she had her awake 5-year-old who kept trying to photo bomb her. She’s been thinking and writing about being Gen X for years now, and somewhat wryly noted that Boomers are getting blamed for the economy by Millennials, which means Xers can’t even get in the blame game.

Cultural Differences

We spent a little time talking about the shared experiences of our youth. For most Americans, the Gen X childhood was inextricably linked with the Cold War. Imagine our surprise when we realized that for Canadians it wasn’t really the defining aspect of their youth.

Aleksander grew up in one of the few European nations that was neither in NATO nor in the Warsaw Pact. (In fact, the Non-Aligned Movement was founded in Belgrade). His youth was starkly defined by the war that tore Yugoslavia apart – the before, under a Socialist government where people had money and could travel wherever they wanted in the country, to the after, when everyone was poor, couldn’t visit certain cities, and were living in a war-torn nation.

“I turned 20 in the army,” he said. “At that point, I realized we are cannon fodder. Our generation was cannon fodder.”

That defined Generation X vs the generations that came before and after.

But in music, Aleksander has found many commonalities with other Gen Xers. He and I and Angela, in fact, met through TurntableFM, in a room devoted to 1980s alternative and new wave music.

“After two sessions, I kind of felt like I grew up with these people,” he said. “It was such an amazing feeling to feel that completely unknown people to me, complete strangers from a totally different culture listened to the same music, have an enormous feeling of bonding, like you knew them forever.”

Ryan noted that it was an odd time musically – the collision of classic rock and new wave, which brought us piles of one-hit wonders – Tarzan BoySly Fox.

“They played these 60 times a day for three straight weeks,” Ryan said. None of us listened to the Top Gun soundtrack when it came out, but we all claimed it as our retro music later, because we’d heard it in our youth. “Culturally, that brings us together.”

Helen recalled acting as DJ at her 20-year high school reunion, along with a more “mainstream” DJ. Her classmates praised her for remembering all the cool tunes from the 1980s, despite the fact that she was the one who listened to it back then. And most of her classmates had not. It’s that those post-punk, new wave, and early rap/hip-hop songs were truly different than the rest of the music and are identifiably of that generation.

When Durga was in high school, she really got into the Doors and Janis Joplin, because it was the cool thing – “To be a hippie.” But growing up in Washington, D.C., she was there for the rise of Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and others.

“I remember exactly the moment when Kurt Cobain died,” she said. “But I was equally distraught when Tupac died.”

Different Values than Boomers

The boomers called us slackers, Ryan said, because they didn’t understand us.

“It’s not that we didn’t work, it’s just that we didn’t value the same material gains that they valued,” he said. We didn’t want to sit there for 90 hours a week in order to buy a Ferrari. “I want my time off. I want to rock climb; I want to kayak.”

The powers that be didn’t understand when they told us they could “incentivize” us and we didn’t care.

My take on that, however, is that those incentives became fewer and further between when we graduated from college. I graduated, for example, in 1991. There were no jobs. It was damn tough to get a job in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The phrase “McJob” arose, referring to crap jobs for crap pay that would have been fine in high school and college, but were not supposed to be what we would be doing after graduating with our expensive college degrees.

Angela chimed in on the chat – “We wanted luxury in different ways, IMHO. I wanted time. I didn’t want a fancy car, I wanted TIME.”

She recalled the moments from her 20s when she had the privilege of sitting in her studio apartment on a milk crate and just had time to think. She sees millennials taking this desire to carve out an actual life outside of career to new levels.

Durga noted, however, that Boomers were like that at our age – idealistic and non-materialistic and now Millennials are claiming to be different than those before by not desiring material things.

Latch-key Children – and Adults?

Much of our different perspective comes from a very laissez-faire childhood.

Hessie was a latchkey child from the time she was 5. “We had to learn to do things by ourselves,” she said. Both her parents worked. “They had to be out of the house all the time to work to support four kids. It made us a lot more independent, I think. Because of that, surviving through not being able to get a job out of university and what to do in between, that was normal for us.”

Laurie wasn’t a latch-key child, but she definitely feels like a part of the Sandwich Generation, squeezed between two other, much larger generations. She wondered if so many of the things we regard as differences between the generations isn’t really particular to the generations we’re in, but rather just a general generational difference that always happens.

And that’s a great point. As Durga pointed out – every generation in their youth thinks they have the lock on being less materialist and more idealistic than their forebears. That’s partly because they tend not to have the same responsibilities as of family and mortgages, of course.

“I was born 3 days technically before Gen Y started,” Durga said. “But I identify far more with Gen X.”

Her parents divorced when she was young and her mom, a concert pianist, decided to go back to school.

“I was pretty much out the door in the morning, on my own until dinnertime – just kind of bootstrapping it.”

That sort of childhood has led to an overall “institutional distrust, cynicism of authority figures and really just anyone in charge,” she said. “I think I got that pretty good.”

For Angela, the Latino culture shaped her childhood as much as her generation.

“I wasn’t a latch-key kid, but I might as well have been,” she said. Her parents focused more on the boys. Plus, she was raised in a rural community, where there wasn’t as much connection to others because of the distances.

Boomers often are called “helicopter parents,” but I’ve heard Xers referred to as “fighter jet” parents. “You mess with my kids, we zoom in and blow everything up,” I said. Is that a reaction to us being latchkey kids? Is your parenting a result of or a reaction to how you grew up?

It’s the Economy, Stupid

We talked a lot about the upcoming financial squeeze – how the mass of retiring boomers is going to put such a heavy squeeze on social security and other social programs to care for the elderly.

“These sorts of economic promises are always made,” Ryan said. “Right now, boomers are the most politically powerful generation. If you don’t make the promises to them, you won’t get elected. But they’re not going to get it.”

Myself, I recall laughing at my last corporate job when older co-workers were complaining about pension freezes. “I knew I was never going to have a pension,” I said. “What’s a pension?”

Laurie brought up the divide between the public and private sector – many public-sector jobs still have many of the benefits that were abandoned by the private sector years ago already. Pensions, completely covered healthcare costs. That divide is causing more strife than the generational divide, she said. “I just can’t stand people having benefits that are unequal to the private industry,” she said. “I feel the squish, but I don’t feel that’s holding me back. I don’t feel that in my 40s that Boomers are why I can’t get further.”

In managing millennials, she said, she doesn’t believe the differences have as much to do with managing a millennial as they do with the fact that she’s managing a young person. Though, she said, the “back-patting” that’s expected is “incredible.”

Angela gave Millennials credit for saving downtown Phoenix. The fact that they were never really told “no” was a benefit in that case. “They saw something in downtown Phoenix, which was destitute,” she said. “They saw an opportunity. We are very crabby and ‘Get off my lawn!’ We saw that as a lost cause and not worth spending money on.”

Little by little, Millennials began opening shops, to sell kites, fix bicycles, other odd little niches no one else thought of. “Now it’s an amazing area,” Angela said. And corporate America is trying to horn in on it – that’s when you know you’re fighting the good fight, she said.

Resourceful and Independent

We’re all pretty satisfied with being Generation X, and no one complained about that label.

“I think that we have a lot of really awesome traits,” Durga said. “We’re really resourceful, and independent. If you like me, fine; if you don’t, whatever.”

What we should do with that resourcefulness, however, is figure out how to leverage the strengths and weaknesses of every generation to better work together.

“The Boomers definitely have their own set of problems and they’re in the position they’re in because the dot-com crash and housing crash affected them pretty hard,” she said. “And the millennials have their own sets of problems.”

So let’s figure out how to talk with everyone and put all those strengths to use.

“We kind of have to bloom where we’re planted,” she said. Pointing fingers just doesn’t cut it. The Internet has made it possible to only ever communicate with people who think just like you. “That never works. Not if you want to find solutions, and not if you want to become aware of what’s going on outside your own backyard.”

Ryan agreed that we need to find a mechanism to work with other generations rather than just bitching about it. That resourcefulness is kind of the Gen X way, he said. “There’s a lot of bitching about Millennials. Depending on what job you’re in, who your incoming work pool is, they’re either more inspiring or incredibly frustrating,” he said. “What are you going to do. This is the incoming generation. We’re either going to mentor this generation … or not survive at all.”

Aleksander agreed that improvisation and resourcefulness define our generation.

“I’m so actually grateful and happy to be a Gen Xer. We lived in the pre-internet era. We knew something totally, totally different,” he said. Referring to the technology we’re working with every day, “We saw the beginning of it, we lived it and we’re kind of made of it, too.

“We have seen it all, and I find it completely and really super-enriching,” he said. “But on the other hand, when you don’t have a beaten path, you just have to improvise a lot. And you have to be super, super creative. I think that helped you a lot. If it didn’t kill you, it helped you a lot.”

We had no idea what to do – the model set in stone that our parents told us about wasn’t going to work. So we kept inventing every morning when we woke up, he said.

“Millennials,” Durga said, “are adorable in their idealism and their optimism. I was exactly that way. When I was in my early 20s, I was going to take over the world. How much cynicism is Gen X or just banging into walls?”

Additional resources

Photo by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr Creative Commons.

0 thoughts on “Gen X Think Tank: The (First) One About Generational Stereotypes

  1. AmyVernon says:

    Mr_McFly ArCIntel It’s funny ‘cos it’s true?

  2. Mr_McFly says:

    AmyVernon I think it’s total greatness. Maybe even t-shirt worthy. cc: ArCIntel

  3. NY6Thinktank says:

    AmyVernon henselec Nice! I will repost on Generation X Goes Global!

  4. AmyVernon says:

    NY6Thinktank henselec So cool! Thanks for letting me know. 🙂 Let me know if you’d like to join our every-other-week hangout. 🙂

  5. NY6Thinktank says:

    AmyVernon henselec Thanks, sounds lovely, but just don’t have the time. Will check in on your blog every once in a while, though.

  6. AmyVernon says:

    NY6Thinktank henselec Definitely can relate to that. 🙂 Shared your site with our group cc hessiejones

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