Gen X was as entitled and unmanageable as millennials are, based on commentary of the ’90s

“Generally less formal in dress and work habits.”
“Generally less formal in dress and work habits.”
Image: AP Photo/Craig Fuji
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As a millennial person, I have often felt that my generation is studied as though it were a recently discovered exotic species. Management consulting firms plot our “shared values” and “international mobility.” Book after book after book informs our bosses how to deal with our need for constant feedback and our lack of loyalty.

What does this generation want? How does it live? Figuring this out apparently requires a lot of research.

It’s almost embarrassing to have been born into this dud of a generation (though maybe that’s my millennial sensitivity speaking), to be part of a uniquely warped, spoiled, and lazy people who are impossible for normal, middle-aged managers to understand.

At least, that’s how I felt until I found the book on managing Generation X.

It turns out that these slackers, now in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, were as young people also seen as an alien species created by unusual parenting (they were the first “latchkey” children to take care of themselves after school, the “first” generation to grow up with divorced parents) and new technology.

“Theirs is a world saturated by media and popular culture—from the movies to TV and now the Internet—in a way their parents and grandparents never experienced,” the Chicago Tribune wrote about Gen X in 1999. ”They also grew up seeing the economy as far more mercurial and far less secure, with companies downsizing their parents or older siblings out of jobs once taken for granted as lifetime appointments.”

Huh, sounds familiar.

While there are some differences in how the two generations were perceived as they entered the workforce (Gen X was generally considered “entrepreneurial,” while, based on the commentary, you wouldn’t think the millennials had not quite figured out yet how to tie their own shoes), the prevailing stories around them have eerily similar aspects. Both go something like this:

Kids these days, amirite?

“Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation” —Time Magazine cover story headline, 2013

“The boring twenties: Grow up, crybabies, you’re America’s luckiest generation”  —Washington Post headline, 1993

They’re just so entitled—they want everything now, before they’ve paid their dues.

“Put me in his job,” [a millennial friend] said of her CEO, the man atop nearly 5000 employees. “I could do it!” She seemed oblivious to our generation’s reputation. I’ve been in denial, too. But the evidence is unavoidable: Millennials are entitled.”—Forbes, 2016

“The paradox is that on one hand, members of this generation [X] don’t want to be ruled by the company. They want to have a life,” said Carolyn Cartwright, senior vice president of human resources for SunTrust Bank. “On the other hand, they’re impatient waiting for job promotions and want all the perks associated with ‘paying one’s dues.'” —The Atlanta Constitution, 1997

They don’t want to work hard.

“I used to ask my class of undergraduate students to name five good things and five bad things about their [millennial] generation. For years, “lazy” was consistently among the students’ top five responses for bad things. For years, I’d tell the students, “There’s no evidence of that.” Then I came across this data [showing a rise in the percentage of young people who claim they don’t want to work too hard]. As much as I’d like to, I don’t say that anymore.” —Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, writing in Psychology Today in 2016

“In a recent national survey, 18- to 24-year-olds were asked how older generations perceive them: “lazy,” “confused” and “apathetic” were their top answers. —The Los Angeles Times, 1996

They don’t want to grow up.

“A nation of Peter Pans: We have created a country filled with perpetual children.” —Dr. Keith Ablow, Fox News op-ed, May 2016

“Through no fault of our own, we ex-slackers have become like Peter Pan, searching for our very own Wendy (or Wendell) and never quite growing up.” —New York Times, 2001

They want to work flexible hours.

“Millennials want flexibility. They work well with clear instructions and concrete targets. If you know what you want done by when, why does it matter where and how they complete the task? Give them the freedom to have a flexible work schedule.” —PwC’s NextGen: A global generational study, 2013

“The Gen X’ers, in their early 20s to mid-30s, are generally less formal in dress and work habits. They prefer more flexible schedules and see no reason why they can’t have fun in the office. The baby boomers, in their late 30s to early 50s, take a more traditional, nose-to-the-grindstone approach.” —The Charlotte Observer, 1999

They need constant feedback.

“Millennials have grown up in an era of remarkable connectedness. They’re used to receiving instantaneous feedback from parents, teachers and coaches. They’ve grown accustomed to having the immediate ability to ask questions, share opinions and provide commentary. Simply put, millennials have engaged in a constant feedback loop from an early age. Given their perspective, it’s understandable that this generation has an ingrained expectation for ongoing communication.” —Gallup, 2016

“[Generation Xers] are more compelled by the moment, and require short-term rewards and constant feedback. As a group they get bored easily, and need to feel challenged and engaged by their work. They are much more comfortable with diversity than previous generations, and see global issues easily. Because they were raised as latchkey children, they are self reliant and hyper-independent. This is a population of workers that needs rapid and specific feedback and encouragement.” —Michael Sullivan, president of Fifty Plus Communication Consultants in Charlotte, North Carolina, speaking to HR Focus Magazine in 1997

And they require a special management strategy.

“Don’t even try to manage Millennials, the largest generation in the workforce. Lead them. Yes Virginia, those born just before the turn of this last century are different. They cannot be managed the way other generations have been managed. They must be inspired and enabled through BRAVE leadership.” —Forbes, 2016

“According to the experts, the Fortune 100 are acutely aware that Gen Xers expect and need a different kind of work environment than that of the Baby Boomer generation that came before them. Yesterday it was: “Thank you for the job opportunity, I’ll try to please you.” Today, it’s: “Here’s what I want to stay with the company, and if I am not happy and if I am not having fun, I’ll take my skills elsewhere. Beyond seeking a good time, Generation Xers function differently than Baby Boomers, and need to be handled (and managed) differently.” —American Management Association HRfocus magazine, 1999

Then again, maybe they’re just misunderstood.

“They’ve been called cocky, entitled, superficial, coddled, narcissistic…and don’t even mention tech-obsessed. But some say the millennial generation is actually full of promise, and may have a thing or two to teach the rest of us.” —Psychology Today, 2016

“Generation X is just a bunch of whiners, right? They’re all slackers. They’re all sleeping in their clothes, moaning about the national debt they’ve inherited, and pining for Greg or Marcia Brady. Come on. There are 38 million Americans in their 20s, but there are only two generalizations we can make about them with any degree of certainty: they are Americans, and they are in their 20s.” —Newsweek, 1994