by John Fish
Solving for X. You probably recall that simple algebra equation from back in your early school days. But solving for X isn’t about math anymore. It’s about placemaking for both Generation X and the millennials, two very different generations that hold the key for businesses to achieve true greatness.
Suffolk expends extraordinary time and resources hand picking the “best and brightest” young people to work for our organization, and for good reason. I have found our millennial employees, born between 1981 and 2000, to be optimistic, confident, social and diverse. They are also adept at change and technologically savvy, an ideal combination for any organization on a quest to innovate, create and challenge the status quo. But with all the great strengths of millennials and all the attention they receive from the media and corporate America, it’s time for businesses to address the “real” elephant in the room – Generation X holds the key to bridging businesses from where they are today to where they’ll need to be in the future.
Generation X, consisting of individuals between ages 37 and 51, numbers 46 million in the United States, compared to the 78 million baby boomers and 70 million millennials in the workforce. Despite their lower numbers, Generation Xers are absolutely critical to the workforce and the economy. They represent the skills, knowledge, and strong work ethic companies need to gain a competitive advantage. They have weathered many storms and paid their dues, gaining invaluable experiences along the way. Extremely loyal, most Gen Xers are approaching the prime of their lives and careers – they have families of their own, good salaries and the soft skills necessary to be executive leaders in today’s fast-changing world.
But here’s the catch. While most Gen Xers are comfortable with technology, they weren’t born with microchips in their DNA like the millennials who have been accustomed to using computers, iPhones and other gadgets their entire lives. Millennials have a “tech advantage” coupled with the sheer numbers of having one and a half times more workers in the workplace. And while the dynamic of so many baby boomers still in the workplace comes with its own set of unique challenges, it is Generation X that must come to terms with the surge of millennials in the workforce today because they will be working side by side for a longer period of time.
But there are experts who believe millennials could pose a “clear and present danger” to Generation X and not just play the role of willing collaborative partners. In the end, organizations may decide to place their bets on millennials and simply “skip over” the vulnerable Gen Xers. They could invest more heavily in younger employees perceived as “the future” who could potentially assume executive leadership positions sooner with the right training, mentoring and support. The rationale: Why not invest in employees who may have more upside and will remain in the workforce longer anyway? If this becomes the prevailing opinion of most organizations, the career clock could be ticking faster for Generation X than for the baby boomers who are ironically closer to retirement.
Regardless of what the future may bring for Gen X, today’s workforce includes three generations that can each provide significant value to organizations willing to tap into their unique skills, experience and approaches to work. So, how can organizations optimize these very different sets of workers and set up their organizations for long-term success?
First and foremost, employers need to appreciate and respect the role Gen Xers can play in their organizations. Employers must promote loyalty and recognize the value a more seasoned workforce provides their organizations. It’s time for businesses to take Gen X more seriously or potentially lose these critical workers to competitors who recognize the value of their contributions and leadership.
Secondly, businesses must make a real commitment to providing training in technology and leadership development so everyone has the tools to compete in this dynamic and competitive information age. Sophisticated hard-skills training will be the secret sauce that separates the truly great organizations from all the rest.
Additionally, it’s important that businesses not view millennials and Generation X as adversaries in the workplace. There is great potential for more symbiotic mentoring between the two workforces (and the baby boomers, as well). Businesses should focus on the common ground between various generations and find creative ways to foster reverse mentoring to train their people and build stronger, more collaborative relationships across their organizations.
Finally, before Gen Xers and baby boomers fully adopt new technologies they will need proof those technologies will have a positive impact on them professionally and will create real value for their clients. They will not blindly pledge their allegiance to new technologies without first seeing empirical evidence that demonstrate their worth. Big data and metrics must be the foundation of innovation and change in any organization, and data can be the key to persuading Gen Xers and baby boomers there will be a significant return on investment in innovation that will greatly benefit their careers and organizations.
Companies that successfully “solve for X” will win the day. Those organizations that provide nurturing working environments and training opportunities allowing Gen Xers and millennials to grow professionally together will not only survive but thrive, and will become a force for positive change in business and in the world.
John Fish is the chairman and CEO of Suffolk.