Exploding Generation X Myths

What the next batch of leaders want in their work/personal lives.

here’s a lot you should know about the new generation of leaders moving up in America’s top companies and professional services firms. Often referred to as Generation X, it’s made up of people born between 1964 and 1975. Numerous stereotypes and myths about Gen-Xers abound, and scant research has been done to examine them. Catalyst’s study, “The Next Generation: Today’s Professionals, Tomorrow’s Leaders,” tackles some of those assumptions by examining women’s and men’s attitudes and expectations about their jobs, careers and personal lives. Specifically, it examines this group’s career goals, personal values, work-related expectations and work satisfaction, to help employers attract, retain and advance this next generation.

Gen-Xers entering the workforce have been affected by powerful economic and demographic trends. More people in this generation than any other grew up in single-parent and dual-career families, and observed their parents working long hours. They’ve witnessed years of corporate downsizing, the failure of many technology businesses and the collapse of even large, established companies. It should come as no surprise that Gen-Xers might approach their work and careers very differently than their predecessors.

Debunk It
Perception: Gen-Xers have low levels of work commitment.

Reality: 85% of survey respondents said they really care about the fate of their employers, and 83% said they were willing to put in far more effort than normally expected.

Source: Catalyst, www.catalystwomen.org .

Job commitment. One of the most prominent myths about Gen-Xers is that they have low levels of organizational commitment. They are perceived as serial job-hoppers and their dedication to work—or even to establishing viable, long-term careers—is not seen as particularly high. However, the study found that Gen-Xers are very committed to their jobs and their careers. Fully 85% reported they really cared about the fate of the organizations for which they work, and 83% said they were willing to put in far more effort than is normally expected to help their organizations succeed. Almost one-half (47%) would be happy to spend the rest of their careers with their current organizations. Two-thirds—67%—said they were attracted to their current organizations by the potential for job security.

Even the primary factors that attracted these individuals to a particular organization were traditional. A large majority (88%) of survey respondents were looking for potential advancement opportunities; 78% came because of the compensation offered, 77% joined because of the company’s reputation and 76% for the benefits.

Another myth is that Gen-Xers demand flashy amenities—yet our respondents said that was not the case. Only 22% called a gym membership very important, while even lower percentages placed high value on convenience services or an employee lounge (14%).

What Gen-Xers do value are career development and advancement. More than eight out of ten reported that extremely or very important to their job advancement and satisfaction were support from their supervisors (95%), feedback on performance (92%), identification and development of high-potential employees (82%) and long-range development plans (82%).

What Attracted Gen-Xers

Personal life. In addition to placing great importance on their careers, both men and women Gen-Xers also placed high value on personal life, and were seeking effective ways to manage their lives. More than three-fourths of respondents (78%) said flexible work policies and programs were extremely or very important to their job advancement and satisfaction, and many more individuals desired to use specific flexible work arrangements than currently used them. Two-thirds—67%—of employees would like to work a compressed workweek, though only 6% actually did, and 36% would like to work part-time, while only 4% did. There was also great interest in working from home: 59% wanted this option, while only 17% had the opportunity.

Gen-Xers had several reasons for wanting to use alternative schedules. The top reason was to meet child care responsibilities (cited by 79% of women and 68% of men); followed by the ability to attend school (37% of women and 47% of men); personal health (41% of women and 44% of men); and personal reasons unrelated to family (31% of women and 39% of men).

Perceptions of Fairness, by Gender

Better jobs. Further dispelling myths about Gen-Xers’ motivations were the reasons they gave for leaving their current organizations. Not unlike their counterparts of previous generations, they want to make a real contribution and be recognized for it. One-third (34%) of respondents plan to leave their current company in less than three years, looking for increased intellectual stimulation (77%), greater advancement opportunities (75%) and increased compensation (72%).

Male/female fairness. Overall, Catalyst’s study revealed a remarkable level of similarity between women and men in the workplace. They join or leave their organizations for similar reasons and want access to many of the same programs and policies. However, women and men continue to have rather different views on diversity-related issues and hold quite different perceptions of the allocation of work-related rewards. Forty-two percent of women said they have to outperform men to get the same rewards—an opinion shared by only 11% of men. Sixty-two percent of men said the sexes are paid comparable salaries for similar work; only 30% of women agreed. These findings showed many organizations either are not doing as good a job managing diversity as they need to be or are not communicating their efforts and successes well enough.

While both women and men perceived organizational and attitudinal barriers to women’s advancement, women were much more likely to report that such barriers existed. For example, while 68% of women felt their commitment to personal and family responsibilities was a barrier to their advancing to senior management, only 38% of men agreed. More women than men also cited a lack of mentoring opportunities (50% vs. 29%); a lack of significant client development or general management experience (46% vs. 33%); stereotyping and preconceptions of women’s roles and abilities (45% vs. 21%); and lack of women role models (42% vs. 25%).

Overall, Catalyst’s research on the next generation of professionals shattered many myths and assumptions, and demonstrated that Gen-Xers are largely committed to their careers and loyal to their current employers. It also pointed to key areas upon which organizations must focus to truly leverage the talent they recruit.

Catalyst is an independent, nonprofit research and advisory organization working with businesses and the professions to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women at work. It has offices in New York, San Jose and Toronto. Visit the Catalyst Web site at www.catalystwomen.org for information about how to obtain the full report, as well as recommendations that address issues covered in this study.

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