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Generation X: The Last, Best Hope for Mankind

No matter who you are, you are expected to work throughout the adult years of your life, unless of course you’re filthy rich. It seems simple enough; get up every morning, watch CNN (nobody reads a newspaper anymore), fight rush-hour traffic to get to some miserable job you hate. Isn’t this what it means to be an adult? Isn’t this why we toiled all those years in school?
Recent studies show that 80 percent of people hate their jobs (I have seen studies as high as 95 percent). The latest statistics say that students graduating from high school today will change jobs 10 to 15 times over the course of their working lives and change careers as many as three or four times. Seems logical, doesn’t it? If you don’t like what you’re doing, go find something you enjoy doing. Great! Except that contradicts conventional wisdom about how to manage your career. You know that whole “if I leave in less than two years they will think I am lazy, unfocused, and not loyal” mentality.
I’m here to tell you conventional wisdom is wrong and that the world is demanding a new model for work and how one manages a career. Conventional wisdom is under siege by pragmatism because the world has changed. This revolution (and I chose that word carefully) is driven by the global, free-market economy where success is determined by your ability to provide someone else something they want. They call that adding value. Do you have what I want? How quick can you get it to me? How much will it cost? Can I get it in blue?
The revolution is happening in all corners. People are realizing that the ways of the past aren’t going to cut it for tomorrow. They’ve been doing what they’ve always done, and it’s gotten them a pink slip (through no fault of their own I might add). Companies realize they need a different type of employee to succeed in the global marketplace. They need innovators who can create value for the customer. Education? Well, we still have hope for them. You know it’s bad when the American Federation of Teachers reports that the United States is the worst developed country at transitioning students from school to jobs. Would you be surprised if that overpriced college diploma becomes worth even less in the future?
Think I’m exaggerating? Go to any five companies out there. Chances are two or three of them have laid people off over the last three years. Don’t feel sorry for the “canned,” feel sorry for the “survivors.” The place is probably still so thick with stress and tension that you would need a chainsaw to cut through it. How many of those people love their jobs?
So how do we (Gen X) navigate ourselves through the treacherous waters of today’s vicious job world? Try this on for size: find a job you love. Chances are you are already doing that. Author Bruce Tulgan, who just published a groundbreaking book on managing Gen X in the workplace says Xers have an expectation that a job is supposed to be fun. I like that.
Our parents think it is important to work hard. Kudos! They call that work ethic. But Gen X has grown to have a higher standard in that along with working hard (and we do) we want a sense of satisfaction from our job. What’s wrong with that? Sure it’s ambitious. Sure it will probably take longer to find. We don’t want just any job, we want one where we can make a difference. “Give a man a job he loves and he will never work a day in his life.” These were the words of Confucius written over 2400 years ago.
In my work with people and my many conversations, everyone has a sincere desire to make a contribution, and it usually manifests itself through helping others. This is not just a Gen X trait, it goes across generational boundaries. In that respect we are all very much the same, yet how we pursue and achieve our contribution is what makes us uniquely different. Work is much more than a paycheck to Gen X. It is an important part of who we are. We spend a lot of time there, and it takes on a sense of community for us. We demand that it be social and personable. We are willing to give a lot to companies but expect the opportunity to grow and contribute in return. In the words of Steven Covey, “It’s either win-win or no deal.”
What can we learn from all this? The key to finding happiness in a career comes from finding something you love to do so it doesn’t seem like work. If we’re going to work hard, spend countless hours at the office or shop, why not find something that we’re passionate about and makes us feel as though we’re making a difference. If you love it, it will be no effort to work hard. If you’re passionate commitment and follow-through will never be an issue because your love for what you’re doing will cause you to internalize it.
Here are a few key lessons to learn for career success as we enter the next millennium. Chew on these for a while and consider whether they are worth your time and effort to explore.

Lesson 1: “Companies don’t provide security for people anymore; people must provide it for themselves.”

Actually companies never really did provide security. The United States was just fortunate to be in cushy situation for so many years after W.W.II. That has all changed now with the global marketplace. The contract that previously existed between company and employee has become null and void. Job security, or at least what we used to consider job security, is gone. The implicit agreement was broken when companies continued to lay people off while still making big profits. American companies made a record $400B in profits in 1994 yet still cut 425,000 jobs. Government, which used to be a safe haven for workers, also is faced with the reality that security no longer exists. The status of the social security system is an excellent example.
Want another example? Recently, the Motorola Pager Division paid their 1000 workers a 22 percent bonus. Within one year 100 of those workers got laid off due to price wars with a competitor. Do you think those guys were saying, “Wow honey, look at this great bonus. Let’s put it in the bank in case I get laid off next year.” I don’t think so. What are you going to do with your next bonus, assuming you get one?
Our job security in the future will come from ourselves as we invest in our own growth and development to keep us employable. Our only asset is our ability to produce. Remember, create value (I can get it for you in blue). We know companies demand a lot of us and we expect much in return, but how do we develop win-win solutions so that all parties get their needs met?

Lesson 2: “Being an employee of the company will no longer be the only option available.”

Bill Sweney of Resource Associates Corporation recently told me that 50 percent of all jobs performed will be done by someone who works outside the company. Think about your current company. Which 50 percent do you think could be done by an independent contractor? Would you want to be one of those people? Do you know the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent contractor? Is it worth finding out?
Let me share with a short story about a friend of mine. He left his old employer to go out and work for himself. He felt very strongly that his old company would retain him to work on this one particular project. They did, and the project was a huge success. When it was complete he showed them how much they saved by using him as an independent contractor (about $6000 over two and a half months). Did he have the skills they wanted? Yes. Did he do it for less? Definitely. Did he do it better? According to him, he thought the quality of the work was better after he left the company. This exemplifies the spirit of win-win.
Here’s the real kicker. He did it in half the time. That’s right, he got creative and found ways to take a 40-hour job and do it in 20 hours. Now he had all this free time to pursue other work or have some fun. He chose the latter taking long weekends. Ah, quality of life! Do you think you could do something like this? Would you want to?
In the good old days when Pat Buchanan was growing up, you sold your soul to the company and pledged your allegiance in return for job security. That security has disappeared, but companies are still grappling with how to keep good people. As organizations become flatter, promotions are less frequent and chances to grow and gain experience less available. Innovative companies are allowing “intrapreneurship” so that people can carve their own niche whether it be inside or outside the company.

Lesson 3: “30 percent of all jobs have been eliminated in the last five years due to obsolescence, technology and other factors. The rate is not going slow.”

We’ve already acknowledged that world is changing faster than ever. Job disappear and are created daily. Where would you rather be, on the front end creating new jobs or on the backside hoping your job is not going to disappear this month? A well-known career specialist once told me that good jobs aren’t found anymore, they’re created.
How do you create a job? Find a way to add value, find a need and fill it. Here’s another example. Rick Phillips was a teacher in California. He was frustrated by the lack of money the school gave him so he decided to organize a 24-hour relay to raise money. In doing so he got support from teachers, students, parents, elected officials and local businesses. The relay was a huge success, but Rick realized afterwards that the real benefit of the relay was not the money but that members of the community came together to build a shared vision for the future. He decided to write a manual for other communities how they too could build a stronger community by using his 24-hour relay concept. To date 70 communities nationwide are using his program and have raised over $1.5 million. Rick now works full-time with his non-profit organization, Community Matters, to help these communities start their programs.

Lesson 4: “Commitment to lifelong learning.”

Are you as sick of this one as I am? I know it’s a cliché and they are trying to drill it into our heads that we can never afford to stop learning. But they are speaking to the wrong generation. Gen X is the one who loves change. We grew up with it. We feel comfortable with it (unlike our Boomer counterparts). We have no problem continuing to learn.
Here’s the problem I have. Everyone assumes that the only place you can learn is in the classroom. Now don’t get me wrong, I think formal education is great (remember how good the teachers federation said it was). All I’m saying is there are many ways to learn, and how you do it isn’t nearly as important as if you do it. Community groups, professional societies, and coffee shops are all great places to learn. One thing that helped me is when I realized that every interaction I have is an opportunity for me to learn. It is amazing how your view of people and situations will change when you approach it in that manner.

Lesson 5: “All bets are off.”

I have a friend who is a professor at a Florida school. He once told me, “Tom, if I had the opportunity to graduate from college at any time during my life I would choose now.” When I asked him why he said, “All bets are off today.” At no other time in history do you have a better opportunity to make your own breaks, to be your own person, to master your own destiny. It doesn’t matter whether you are among the 25 percent who go to college or the 75 percent who don’t, the opportunity is there for everyone to succeed if they can find a way to add value. There you have it, five fab lessons for the future.
I just want to make some closing remarks regarding Gen X’s role in the future. I get a chance to talk with a lot of business people, and I also read a lot of today’s forward thinking material on the nature of work. It amazes me that when companies describe the type of employee traits needed to remain competitive in the future, the traits are perfectly aligned with Gen X. Companies want creative thinkers with new ideas. They want people with a strong sense of independence but also understand the value of working within a team. They want people who are open to change and willing to take the risks associated with it.
If that isn’t the essence of Gen X I don’t know what is. We want challenges, we like risk, we like rewards too. We have our own ideas about how to do things and yearn for the opportunity to try them. We don’t mind taking responsibility for our actions. We just want to know we are being included in decision making and not just brushed aside and told to wait our turn. The problem is that the mainstream business establishment has yet to recognize Gen X for what we are. But things are changing as the establishment realizes that yesterday’s answers do not sufficiently address today’s questions. When they run out of ideas and desperation sets in, they will begin to look to new places for answers. And when they do, my fellow revolutionaries, we will be ready to take our places.