The “Latchkey” key experience
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“I do not think being a Latchkey was a bad deal,” Ms. Johnson said at the VAA Convention, speaking on her own experience as a child.
She explained when she left school and arrived home, on the kitchen counter “was a list of tasks that had been left by management,” aka her parents. The rules were simple: get these tasks done by the time the parents came home.
“But it was up to us to decide. We decided when to start and when to stop,” she said.
“We could decide how many breaks to take. If something goes wrong, there's nobody there to help us. We have to solve the problem, complete the task and move on…. Generation X has become our most independent generation.”
When members of this generation entered the workforce, they tended to operate under the same conditions. They work well independently and just want to be given the tools and training to get the job done and then be left alone.
This is a drastic change from the previous generation, the Baby Boomers, who are all about a teamwork experience.
Part of working together in a business environment is understanding what works for each individual. While there are always going to be people who do not fit into the mold of their generation, remembering why a generation works the way it does is important too.
Sesame Street changed the game
Childhood can greatly shape the working environment a person desires as an adult. There is a major “generational signpost” — an event or a phenomenon that happens that one generation shares — that changed the game for Generation X and all generations afterward. The television show Sesame Street combined elements of fun, fast-paced learning instead of slower-paced activities. This led to a group of adults wanting an engaging work environment.
“Since learning is the ‘job' of a child, Sesame Street and its followers, The Electric Company and MTV, convinced Generation X children that learning — their job — should be fun and fast paced,” the Johnsons explained.
“Translated to the workplace, Gen Xers place a high value on fast-paced action and having fun. This doesn't mean Gen Xers expect work to be all giggles and parties, but it does mean they expect work to be engaging.”
However, it is important to realize that “fun” can mean different things to different people. The Johnsons advise managers not try to be “fun” without asking any input from employees, especially if the manager is extending an activity into personal time. One example in Generations, Inc. is a manager who has team meetings on Friday nights at his favorite bar to discuss sales strategies. While this may be fun for the manager and he may think its fun for his team, an employee explained to the Johnsons that he goes because he wants to be a team player, but there are a lot of other things he'd rather be doing on his own time.
“If the mantra of the Baby Boomers is ‘We are all brothers and sisters on one big happy team,' the mantra of Generation X is ‘Take care of yourself because no one else will,'” the Johnsons said.
Members of Generation X were alive during the stock market crash (Black Monday) in 1987. They also remember the 1992 recession and other events that led to their parents' being laid off or having their careers sidelined. The days of putting trust in a company because that company puts trust in its employees started to shift because of it.
“Given what happened to their parents or their friends' parents, they tend to respond cynically to talk about company loyalty, team spirit and being one big, happy family,” the Johnsons said.
“They think, ‘Yeah, we're one big, happy family until the company is sold or the economy tanks. Then it's every man and woman for themselves.'”
The Johnsons added the members of Generation X “tend to be unwilling to make a lifetime commitment to the organization because they have a realistic view of the organization's inability to make a lifetime commitment to them.”
This does not mean that Generation X does not care about the companies they work for or that they cannot be long-term employees; however, they need to deem it worth it. A manager can acknowledge this and create an atmosphere Gen X employees want to work in. If a Gen Xer is always preparing him or herself for the next job or opportunity, the Johnsons advise management to create a role that the employee sees value in. A key to keeping that Gen X employee is to keep him or her engaged.
“Despite the derogatory descriptors assigned to them early in life, Generation Xers have turned out to be hardworking, responsible, family-focused adults,” the Johnsons said.
“Working in teams is not beyond their capabilities, but they tend to prefer to fly solo.”
Creating families, creating balance
Members of Generation X may have come into the world at a time of low birth rate and spent much of their childhood solo, but research suggests they may be trying to make up for that in their own families. The Johnsons reported that between 1995 and 2000, the share of women having three or more children jumped to 18.4 percent from 11.4 percent, which “suggests that Gen Xers may be looking to create the family environment they thought they missed in their own childhoods.”
Generation X likes to find the balance between their work life and home life.
“Spending time with their families is import to Gen Xers. As a result, managers need to think twice before asking them to work overtime or on weekends,” the Johnsons said.
“This doesn't mean they won't put in extra time for you, but it comes at a high cost. They want to see a logical reason for doing so and if they perceive that staying those extra hours could have been avoided by better management they will resent the intrusion on their time and blame you, the manager, for your ineptness.”
Generation X may be a small part of the population, but they will be around in the workplace for awhile so understanding their needs may be a key to a business' success.
The next installment of the Generations in the Workplace series will be on Generation Y, a generation dubbed “Millennials.”