Wednesday, September 20, 2023

How to Manage Gen X Employees

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..."

I made my first ‘corporate video’ on a 16mm Arri BL, and it contained the words “Just 5 minutes from this cinema.” I've created magazine ads in 1:618 with a scalple and Cow Gum. I rendered video titles with my Atari ST. I wrote my first website in Notepad and my second in Netscape Composer. I worked in SEO when getting on DMoz was critical and Lycos was still a puppy. I’ve seen dot com bubbles burst, the Berlin Wall fall, every Star Wars film at the cinema, and I was an art student under Thatcher. I am tech-savvy - but not tech-dependent. I’ve written millions of words of copy, been married twice, and lived/worked in six different counties. I have footwear that's probably older than you are.

Be sure you actually want an honest opinion before you ask me for one. My work/life balance is good, but I’ll work ‘til I die (and when I work, I work hard). Self-reliance is my middle name, and I don’t give a damn about workplace politics unless it’ll get in the way of my deliverables. I’m flexible and can adapt to change, but I can involuntarily roll my eyes so hard I check out my own ass. I have learned to keep my mouth shut, but only recently, though not if I see injustice, bad science, or bigotry. I am loyal but do not cross me. 

I am Generation X

Here’s how to manage us so that nobody gets hurt. 

Who Exactly is Gen X? 

My Gen X colleagues, in my experience, are often the unsung role models and silent mentors in the modern workplace. Born between the late 1960s and early 1980s they are more Taoist than the Boomers and more stoic than the Millennials. Now in our 40s and 50s, we hold senior positions in agencies and across all industry sectors. 

As any savvy marketer or creative will tell you, understanding the dynamics of your team and where people fit is important. We're not complicated, but there's some things you need to know becasue they run deep in the Gen X psyche.

While younger workers may be taking career breaks, Gen X employees are deliberatly choosing to stay employed, driven by necessity and desire. Primarily, our financial obligations of kids, mortgages, divorces, medical bills, that classic camper van we didn't really need, etc. that make a consistent income indispensable. Moreover, after navigating numerous economic upheavals and diligently building their careers, many are reluctant to sideline their potential for further career advancement. So much for the label of "the slacker generation."

Here are my thoughts, from the horse’s mouth, based on thirty years working in/with creative teams (in-house and in-agency) and from being a somewhat typical (all be it neuroatypical) example of my demographic: 

Unpacking the Gen X DNA 

Gen Xers are archetypically known for their resourcefulness, independence, and for valuing work-life balance. We embraced personal computing from the ZX Spectrum onwards and invariably hold strong views on equality and individual liberty. 

As the ‘latchkey generation,’ we’re more than capable of managing our time and challenges solo. We’ve been feeding ourselves since we were ten and we "drank out of the hose" because we weren't allowed in the house. We thrive without micromanagement, solving challenges with experience and initiative, and are best given a goal and some KPIs. Revved up, then let loose like an Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. Helicopter-manage us and we’ll hate you, our jobs, and leave (for a 16%+ pay rise with your competitors). Micromanagement shows a clear lack of trust and feels like it’s taking away our autonomy - it will stifle our creativity and hinder productivity. We’ve been doing this a long time, and we’ve plenty of connections and other places to go if we don’t like it here. 

While respectful, we do lean towards open, relaxed work settings. Expect friendly collaboration and an open-door policy. We are often straight-talking and appreciate straight-talking comms in return. Gen X are resilient, having self medicated themselves through the 90s, and we’ve earned any success we may have. Our tenacity - some may say bloody mindedness - often shines, and can be used to drive projects with passion and perseverance. The MTV Generation (X) is less about the hustle, and more about efficient results. Often cited for our grace under pressure, Gen X will ensure quality over quantity. Our aptitude at time-management and problem-solving makes us efficient players – so let us play. We got this. Leave us to it.  

Growing up in a battlefield of economic shenanigans, we value work dedication AND personal time. If you want a late meeting, fine, but don’t push it too much or we’ll quickly feel undervalued and unappreciated. Quid pro quo, Clarice. Taking us for granted is a mistake, but with some concessions for fair division of holiday time so we can take our teenagers to Disneyland (or whatever), and keep weekends for our hobbies, we’ll nod and smile quite happily. I work for a US company, so it’s part of the job to be flexible and available outside of GMT, and that’s fine, but I still take time to walk my dogs in the mornings if I’ve got meetings ‘till 9 PM. Having experienced a litany of seismic shifts in work cultures, we’re all about adaptability. 

We can embrace change, proudly championing diversity and creativity, be it AI in the workplace or collaborative cloud tools, and are often change leaders. Putting us in charge of collating the ESG report or having us on the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council is our natural habitat. We evolved with the rise of PCs, mobile phones, and the internet. Quick to pick up new tech trends and early adopters, while valuing traditional methods, we’re happy to try most new things (unless it’s decaf coffee) if you can engage us with how they’ll streamline processes and won’t impact on our deadlines.

We genuinely value a clear brief and constructive dialogues, so open feedback channels to promote growth and understanding. A tech-free childhood fostered innate problem-solving and collaboration abilities. Gen X is capable of taking part in some superb team dynamics leading to productive and creative outcomes. 

Actual Management Tips

To harness the dynamism of your resident Gen X, consider the following:
  • Micromanagement? No thanks. Allow them their autonomy.
  • Feedback is Gold. Constructive criticism is welcome but expect a two-way conversation.
  • Valued Time = Productivity. Their work-life balance mantra ensures optimal results.
  • Open Conversations Lead to Success. Honesty garners respect and drives collaboration.
  • Never Stop Learning. Offer opportunities for skill enhancement.
  • Experience is Priceless. Respect their journey and insights; they’re a world-weary goldmine. 
Tapping into the strengths and understanding of Gen X can really add to any team's dynamism – especially when there’s so much young blood in our industry it’s important not to be trapped in a single generational mindset. Gen X is a bridge between tradition and innovation, and can bring invaluable insights from both past lessons, a hands-on and polymath attitude, and from a passion for exploring future trends. 

Whether you’re a Gen Xer yourself, work alongside one, or manage a whole team of them – appreciating their unique blend of skills and experiences can only set you up for success.

Play nice, and we’ll play nice back. Probably.