Gen X at work: How to attract, retain, and motivate

Gen Xers were born between 1965 and 1979, and Gen X is often referred to as the “Sandwich Generation” because it’s a small group (44-50 million) sandwiched between two larger generations—the Baby Boomers and their progeny, Generation Y, also known as Millenials. As Gen X continues to climb the corporate ladder, they are experiencing more and more influence—though probably not as much as they would like.

Gen X has been described by researchers as the most misunderstood generation, and many are viewed as cynical and skeptical. Traditionals and Boomers may perceive Gen X as being disloyal and arrogant slackers with short attention spans. This is typically just a misconception that, if not corrected, could result in higher turnover and poor morale.

Gen X has a lot to offer organizations. They are resourceful and self-sufficient. They are usually great problem solvers and creative. It’s important that organizations become aware of the potential for disengagement and take steps to prevent it, or else they’ll risk losing great contributors.

To better understand Gen X, we must look at the events that shaped their lives.

Gen X was the first generation of “latchkey kids.” As the country increased the number of single-parent and two-income families, Gen X was left to fend for themselves after school. They often came home to an empty house and were responsible for completing their homework, fixing after school snacks or dinner, and resolving conflict with siblings. Divorce rates in the United States tripled during the birth years of Gen X, and as a result, this generation is very independent and confident in their abilities to handle challenges alone.

Public figures that may have influenced Gen X include: Bill Clinton (and Monica Lewinsky), the Brat Pack, Bill Gates, Ted Bundy, Al Bundy, Clarence Thomas, O.J. Simpson, Dilbert, Madonna, and Michael Jordan. In When Generations Collide, authors Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman point out that there may be a significant reason Gen X wanted to be “like Mike.” Many of the others in positions of influence fell from grace amid scandal at some point, and this may have contributed to Gen X’s distrust for organizations and people in the media. The authors went on to explain, “From the presidency to the military to organized religion to corporate America, you name the institution, and Xers can name the crime.”

The fact that they are the “Sandwich Generation” also affects Gen X. They often can feel overlooked and, at some times, even invisible. Because their generation is significantly smaller than other generations, they have been overlooked in the media and in society. We went from a world that was all about the free-loving Baby Boomers to a world that is being shaped by the Boomer’s children—Gen Y. Even though Gen X has contributed a great deal to our culture (i.e., Google, Facebook,, YouTube, etc.), they aren’t getting quite the media plug or consumer power they deserve.

Combine these disappointments with increased divorce rates and the fact that they witnessed their parents get laid off from their jobs due to corporate downsizing and/or reorganization, is it any wonder why this generation is viewed as cynical? Is it any wonder why this group is typically skeptical about the permanence of relationships, whether personal or institutional?

Gen X at work—How to attract, retain, and motivate

Attracting Gen X can be easier than other generations, as Gen X is looking to keep growing and moving up. Most prefer searching online job sites for potential new employers. They will be attracted by a position that provides autonomy, feedback, and potential for growth. And, they enjoy environments with a lot of learning and development opportunities.

While at work, Gen X is very resourceful, and they often don’t need much supervision, but retaining this key talent has been a challenge for some organizations. It is important to understand that this generation will not work well with managers who try to motivate with fear or those who micro-manage. Gen X works best for managers who welcome input, consider and implement their ideas, provide constructive feedback, and give credit when it’s due. Gen X wants an environment where they are given the information they need and the autonomy to work at their own pace and find their own results.

This generation wants to continue moving up in an organization, but can grow discouraged if they don’t have frequent communication regarding their career path. When this information is not communicated, or if they feel the next step will take too long, they can grow restless and start looking for opportunities elsewhere. That is why it’s imperative to communicate their impact, provide feedback and recognition, develop an aggressive career plan for your star players, give them significant access to information, and then move out of their way! You just might be surprised at how easy these self-starters can be to manage and how much they can contribute to the organization.

Also, Gen X may be the key to bringing other generations together because they share many similarities with both Boomers and Gen Y. They can help Boomers better understand the traits they don’t understand in Gen Y. Boomers have expressed an assumption that Gen X and Y don’t want to “pay their dues” and work hard, long hours to get ahead. However, research shows that isn’t the case. Both the younger generations are willing to work hard and work extra hours—when necessary—but they are not willing to sacrifice their personal time just to be seen at the office after 5:00 p.m. They feel that if they can get their work done between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., why should they stay late?

In addition, Gen X can help Gen Y to understand that Boomers are looking for initiative. Staying late to work on an important project communicates teamwork and loyalty to the company. There is also a huge difference between how Boomers and Gen Y view the structure of an organization. Gen Y doesn’t see any problem with marching right into the CEO’s office to pitch an idea; however, Boomers prefer to follow the established chain of command. Gen X can help Boomers understand that Gen Y is not disrespectful of authority, but their experiences have “flattened” their view of organizations. At the same time, Gen X can help Gen Y understand the organization’s established channels and how following those paths can help them be much more successful.

Bridging the Gap

The reality is that the different generations have similar goals and motivators—we all want to be successful. However, there is often a disconnect in what success looks like and how we get there. Organizations should consider identifying ways to bridge the gap. Small focus groups or mentoring sessions, where goals and motivators are discussed, could be very successful in helping all generations identify their commonalities. The problem-solving Gen X can help organizations identify ways to bring the generations together in a way that best suits the company culture. And, at the same time, Gen X will be getting the challenge they need to stay engaged.



Lancaster, L., & Stillman, D. (2002). When Generations Collide. New York: Collins Business.

Mandy Smith

Mandy Smith

Mandy Smith is Director of Training and Employee Development for SWBC. She is responsible for providing SWBC employees with learning and development opportunities which enable them to be more efficient, ... Web: Details