Generation X Fails to Match Their Parents' Living Standards

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Men in cohort are 36% more likely than Boomers to be out-earned by their spousesDespite being the smallest U.S. generation (46 million), Generation X might be “the most critical generation of all” for employers, according to a study by the nonprofit Center for Work-Life Policy.

Generation X is of an age that should put them at the prime of their lives and careers, stepping into crucial leadership roles and starting families. However the study, The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33- to 46-Year-Old Generation, reveals that because of challenges and circumstances out of their control, Generation X is taking a different life path.

The study drew on virtual strategy sessions, focus groups, one-on-one interviews and a survey of 2,952 U.S. college-educated men and women in white collar occupations.

Perhaps the most surprising finding was the exceptionally large number of Generation X who are choosing not to have children. Their extreme work schedules (nearly a third of high-earning Generation X work 60-plus hours a week), strong career ambition, current economic challenges and changing mores and life choices are factors that contribute to their high level of childlessness compared to other generations.

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1978, might be called the “wrong place, wrong time” generation, according to the study. They were hit by an economic triple whammy: college-related debt, multiple boom and bust cycles (including the 1987 stock market crash occurring just as Generation X entered the work force), and the housing slump. As a result, Generation X is the first generation not to match their parents’ living standards.

Boomers Not Retiring

While these economic woes have impacted most generations, they have hit Generation X the hardest in their work lives. Because of their financial concerns, Boomers are not retiring and are choosing instead to work an average of nine years longer than expected. This delays Generation X’s career progression; they feel stalled in their careers and dissatisfied with their rate of advancement.

Yet the turmoil and instability that have been an integral part of their lives have yielded unexpected benefits in the work world. Having been front and center for every major economic crisis of the past 30 years, Generation X possesses the sort of resilience that organizations need as they face an uncertain future, the study found.

Most important, Generation X are masters at mastering change—a skill set critical in every company today. They have been laid off, restructured, outsourced, reorganized and relocated more than any other generation in modern times—yet they are hugely hard-working and ambitious, eager to amplify their talents by learning new skills and garnering new experiences. However, employers must take warning: These strengths risk being nullified by diminished loyalty, declining engagement—and increasing apathy.

Top Findings:

Among the key takeaways from the study:

  • A surprisingly large number of Generation X are delaying or even opting out of parenting: 43 percent of Generation X women and 32 percent of Generation X men do not have children.
  • Among nonparents, 60 percent of women and 36 percent of men feel that their personal commitments are perceived as less important than those of colleagues with children.
  • Despite having been nicknamed the “slacker generation,” Generation X enrolled in higher education in record numbers. Over a third of Generation X hold bachelor’s degrees and 11 percent have graduate degrees.
  • Generation X is highly ambitious, and their ambition is nearly gender neutral: 75 percent of women and 72 percent of men consider themselves ambitious.
  • Thwarted by Boomers who can’t afford to retire and threatened by the prospect of leap-frogging Millennials, 41 percent of Generation X are unsatisfied with their current rate of advancement and 49 percent feel stalled in their careers.
  • Debt determines many of Generation X’s career choices, with 43 percent saying that their ability to pay off their student loans is an important factor in their career choices and 74 percent saying the same about credit card debt.
  • The vast majority (91 percent) of Generation X women and 68 percent of Generation X men are part of a dual-earning couple. More than a third (36 percent) of Generation X women out-earn their spouses.
  • Women and minorities made up 64 percent of graduates during the Generation X college years. Many Generation X minorities are the first in their family to graduate from college: 49 percent for African-Americans and 54 percent for Hispanics, compared to 33 percent of Caucasians.

For employers worldwide, the Generation X factor is crucial to success, but few corporate programs are directed at their needs. Smart organizations will seek to understand what motivates them in order to sustain, retain, realize and maximize their potential. Solutions include offering alternative opportunities to Generation X when they cannot be promoted vertically and making sure that Generation X members without children receive the same flexibility as those with children.

Members of Generation X might have become accustomed to being invisible but “the X Factor” proves that no company can afford to ignore them now.