The workplace lament of Generation X

Tracy Brown
6 min readSep 10, 2023

I never really know how to think about generational theory. As a human-centred design practitioner I know that demographics do not adequately define a person, particularly when we are a mix of so many factors. It seems unlikely that simply because people were born in a similar era they must share the same mindsets and behaviours. Maybe it’s the Barnum or Forer effect that makes us believe it; people will believe any analysis of their personality if it is shown as being tailored to them. Maybe it’s because it is also so satisfying to indulge in identity politics when we are feeling frustrated.

There always appears to be some truth in it, though.

Academics who study generations say people who experience similar trends at approximately the same life stage navigate the world in a similar way, but that geography matters. It might not be advisable to read books and research papers about generational differences in America, for example, and assume it applies to other countries and cultures. As someone who grew up in Africa, spent 16 years in the UK and who now lives in Australia, I both recognise and refute what I have read. For example, Boomers and Millennials both accuse the other of entitlement and selfishness. While I have witnessed that behaviour, I also know that both have shown impressive selflessness to the benefit of us all; Boomers were hugely responsible for the dismantling of oppressive systems like that of apartheid in South Africa, and Millennials are also powering and redefining political protests and anti-establishment movements in every part of the world. The people we don’t like now are the people we didn’t like before; those that use their unearned advantages to take from others, which isn’t so much a generational problem as a socio-economic one. But as the Internet has closed the gap between geographies, Gen X, Millennials and younger generations are considered to display more consistent behaviour than older generations. So, our generalisations about generations are becoming more accurate. For the sake of this article, I’m going to lean in.

Whatever your thoughts on generational theory, my generation — Gen X — barely cracks a mention. The silent generation gets our respect, Boomers and Millennials bear our vitriol and Gen Zs are drowning in our expectations. But it’s like Gen X peaked with Douglas Coupland, blew up the world with cultural and digital disruption then grew up and stepped back, while every other generation went to war with one another.

This is hardly concerning, until it comes to the workplace. Boomers are retired or planning on retiring, and there is a tremendous focus on what Millennials and Gen Zs want, but barely a mention about the needs of the productive and highly skilled Generation X. Of the multitudes of people I have surveyed and interviewed about work since 2019, very few talk about how to meet the needs of people in their 40s and 50s, including Gen Xers themselves. Yet there is a palpable dissatisfaction amongst us. So, I sent out a survey and asked Gen Xers (and some Xennials) around the world to tell me which of their needs aren’t being met, how they think they differ from other generations and what they think will need to change in the future.

There were enough responses to confirm and extend on what I have already seen in previous research and in the very open and regular conversations I have with my contemporaries. But to analyse generational differences accurately you need to study big samples using complex and often costly ethnographic methods. I don’t have the capacity to do it and I am also hugely biased. So instead of an objective analysis, I have written a Gen X workplace lament, one that aims to encapsulate what it is that research participants and my contemporaries feel about work.

We are the in-between generation. We aren’t young but we aren’t old. We are known for working hard but were also called ‘slackers’ when we were younger. We are now in charge but not in control; unlike previous generations, we spend as much time focussing on what younger generations want as what we need to get done, sometimes more. We learned to be resilient but are told that it is a trauma response, not a strength. We were told things like ‘sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you’, but also that words are now the same as sticks and stones. We built the Internet age, defining contemporary digital jobs and setting the standards we have taught everyone else, but are also told younger generations are more digitally-savvy than we are. We are consistently asked to teach younger people but also not to correct them when they get it wrong. We are told we need to promote people because they want it, not because they are ready for it, while also being told that workplaces need to be more meritocratic with fewer middle managers. We work hard enough that boomers respect us and are cool enough that millennials copy us. We may get frustrated with them but we aren’t at war with either; Boomers were the mentors that taught us how to strive and Millennials are the mentees that we want to succeed. We are used to other generations taking credit for our work, our culture and our achievements. We grumble about it, then we let it happen to keep the peace. We are very valuable but are never really the focus, and our value hasn’t translated into the prosperity we need to give us the autonomy that we crave.

We share core values with one another; self-sufficiency, freedom of thought and really earning your keep. Baby boomers relied on our self-sufficiency, were frustrated by our freedom of thought and often exploited our work ethic. Millennials don’t believe in self-sufficiency, find our freedom of thought distasteful and think our work ethic has made things too difficult for them. We are cynical in a way that Boomers and Millennials are not. They are perpetually disappointed because if they want something they expect to get it, somehow. We don’t expect much but now we have to find a way to use our cynicism to shine a light on real problems, generating enough optimism and tapping into our skill for original thinking to find new ways of doing things. We are a generation that would rather see things as they are, is willing to put in the time and effort to get things working and the expertise and experience to understand the age we live in, possibly more so than any other generation.

We may have another 10 to 25 years left in the workplace but we sometimes feel as though we have already been discarded. We don’t dream of extreme wealth as much as being able to have a laugh, be financially rewarded for our hard work and experience, have autonomy over our choices and be able to tell the truth. Most of us don’t think we will have the money we need to retire. Most of us will have to work hard until we can’t physically do it anymore. We fear retirement poverty, irrelevance, having to pretend we believe things we don’t and be people that we aren’t for the rest of our careers. We are experiencing the problems of midlife such as menopause, healthcare scares, dying parents, divorce, disapproving children and existential challenges, but we are not afforded the space we need to navigate them. Ageism towards us is acceptable. We are expected to either run our own businesses or be executives. Many of us don’t or can’t do either. We like to work, but don’t know what we should be working at and for anymore. We are dissatisfied with how work is going but are now seen as the status quo. We fantasise about a new world in which things are simpler, more creative and more honest, but not a replica of the past.

What we want has to matter. Who we are has to matter. We have to convert our ability to accommodate other generations into creating a working world that includes everyone, but that doesn’t exclude our needs. We have to learn from being used as a buffer to teach others to agree to disagree. We have to use our need for truth to cut the bullshit that few really want or believe in. We have to use our self-sufficiency to find more ways for people to have autonomy and flexibility at work. We have to flatten the hierarchies we never believed in to begin with. We have to use our work ethic to teach people how to get worthwhile things done.

We are a generation that nobody really dislikes and who are mindblowingly brilliant when we choose to be, and that’s about as encouraging as an ageing bunch of cynics can hope for.



Tracy Brown

Experience strategist and author, using insights about human behaviour to fix broken experiences for customers and employees.