Generation X stymied by Baby Boomers refusing to give up jobs

Posted Sept. 19, 2011, at 5:48 a.m.

NEW YORK — In Tiffany Spaulding’s 12 years in the pharmaceutical industry, she’s worked for three companies, two of which no longer exist, and relocated to four states.

Now 39 and living in Brookfield, Conn., she hasn’t had a promotion in five years and says she sees no chance to advance, stuck behind a wall of baby boomers. She would quit and turn her hobby of jewelry design into a business, she says, if not for the home and school loans that eat up half her salary.

Spaulding, according to a new report, is a typical member of the relatively small group called Generation X, 46 million Americans born between 1965 and 1978: They’re ambitious, squeezed by debt and frustrated by people who aren’t retiring on schedule. More than a third hope to leave their jobs in three years, a survey of more than 1,100 members of Generation X by the Center for Work-Life Policy found.

Twenty-eight percent say they are working longer hours, an average of 10 more a week than three years ago, and credit card debt helps dictate career choices for 74 percent, according to the center’s report, based on research including interviews with Spaulding and 200 others.

“They are being leaned on from all sides,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a co-author of the report and the founder of the center, based in New York. “They don’t think that there is necessarily a clear set of opportunities ahead of them in corporate America, so there is a lot of flight risk.”

The group’s moniker was popularized by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” and its members were epitomized as apathetic and directionless in films such as “Slacker” in 1991 and 1994′s “Reality Bites.” They long ago shed that image, Hewlett says, and as they approach middle age pose challenges to companies that need “bench strength for leadership.”

They have different expectations — and demands — of employers, according to the report, prizing independence and flexible hours more than their predecessors.

While their experiences and complaints are shared by other generations, the report says that for this group, trends such as the rising cost of higher education have hit particularly hard. It says those entering college in 1996 had average expenses more than four times higher than boomers 20 years earlier.

Many began their careers as companies started cutting back on pensions and health care benefits, and while people in Generation X are more educated and more diverse than boomers, they have had “no welcome in the economy,” says Neil Howe, a demographer and co-author of six books on generations in the United States, including 2010′s “Millennials in the Workplace.”

Even those who aren’t stalled at work can feel pressured by the lingering effects of the worst economic slump in seven decades on a generation that has had rotten timing.

“You look at our generation and we’re on the cusp of financial disaster, and it’s the first time that the American dream isn’t what we all thought it was,” says Bryce Pickering, who has worked at Citigroup in New York for 10 years and, at 32, is among its youngest managing directors.

“A lot of my friends have been caught up in a bad cycle of graduating at the wrong time, starting in a field that blew up, deciding to go back to school and getting into debt to do that, buying a house that’s now worth half what they bought it for.”

On the job, the report says, Pickering’s cohort is running up against the “behemoth” baby boomer generation of 78 million Americans. Forty-seven percent of this group view themselves as in mid-career and 68 percent believe there’s still time for promotions, according to the center. And coming up behind Generation X is “Generation Y,” at 70 million strong.

Generation X — whose members include Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both 38, and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, 42 — is much smaller than its predecessor. “When boomers were in middle management, they didn’t have pressure from Generation X leapfrogging them because it’s not a huge group,” says Hewlett, who is the director of the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “We think that Generation X is certainly feeling this more strongly because the boomers are delaying retirement.”

Todd England, an air traffic controller, says he’s “stuck in the middle,” unable to become a supervisor because older managers need him to train younger controllers.

“We’re like the layer in between the cookies,” says England, 46, who works in Los Angeles. “Unless we actually step up to the plate and take management and leadership roles, we will be the forgotten generation.”

Birgit Neu, chief operating officer for corporate development for global banking and markets at HSBC Holdings in London, says she has also felt the pressure. Neu, 41, started studying for a business degree at New York University in 1987, the month before stock markets crashed and the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost a record 23 percent in one day.

The Philadelphia native graduated into the recession of the early 1990s and worked in publishing, then moved into the dot- com industry, holding three jobs during the Internet bubble and weathering the contraction that followed at a brokerage.

A single mother who often negotiates work from her Blackberry while pushing her four-year-old son on the playground swing, she says she is very aware of HSBC’s younger generation.

“I’ve been doing talks to the grads as they walk in now, in their early 20s,” she says. “I think out to 20 years from now, and one of these people theoretically may be my boss.”

She says her experience has taught her that to avoid getting stalled, “you don’t want to stay in one box.”

“Don’t be dependent on anything or anyone,” Neu says. “It’s safest to plan as if the government isn’t going to take care of me, companies aren’t going to take care of me.”

The center’s Generation X survey found 41 percent are unsatisfied with their rate of advancement and 49 percent feel stalled in their careers.

The findings come at time when businesses say it’s increasingly difficult to find qualified workers, according to Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup, a provider of temporary employees. In the U.S., 52 percent of employers reported having trouble filling positions this year, up from 14 percent in 2010, according to a ManpowerGroup survey.

That makes workers in Generation X, a third of whom have a bachelor’s degree or higher and the youngest of whom have been in the workforce for about a decade, a key pool for companies, the report says.

“These are the next generation of leaders, and if we’re not taking care of their needs and wants, how are we going to retain them?” says Michelle Gadsden-Williams, Zurich-based managing director and global head of diversity and inclusion at Credit Suisse Group, the Zurich-based investment bank. “There is definitely a war for talent out there.”

The Generation X survey found that 70 percent would prefer to be their own bosses. They want the flexibility that will allow them to devote time to outside pursuits and family obligations. Less rigid hours and less time spent in the office are very important to 66 percent of women and 55 percent of men in the study, though 43 percent of women and 32 percent of men surveyed do not have children.

For those with children, Generation X members are as extreme at home as they are at work as they try to be the kind of involved parents that many of them — the first generation of “latchkey” kids — did not have, according to the report. Sixty-five percent of women and 59 percent of men surveyed feel guilty about the time they spend away from their children, the study found.

“They’re trying to create this island of security for their kids, and that creates tension,” demographer Howe says. “They’re running around taking all these risks while they’re trying to create the opposite life for their kids.”

Spaulding, who has no children, says she sometimes finds herself saddled with extra work because of an assumption that “work-life balance” only applies to those with kids.

“There are days when I’ve said the corporate environment feels like prison,” says Spaulding, who asked that her employer not be named because she didn’t get permission to be interviewed. “The biggest thing you can offer me, more than salary, more than anything else, is flexibility.”

 

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