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Upgrade: The quiet desperation of Generation X workers across America

Reality bites: Gen Xers are more stressed at work than any other generation, new research finds. Read More...

They’re dazed and confused — about their careers.

Forty-three-year-old Josh Zepess spent nearly 20 years, most recently as a design engineer, at a semiconductor company — with lots of success, including about 10 promotions and a multi-six-figure salary. “I thought I had it made,” the Generation Xer says, adding that for years he was “the good soldier” who “did everything expected of me.”

‘I was sitting in a grey cubicle 10 hours a day and still had little to show for it except a title and a stressful life.’

—Josh Zepess, Gen Xer

But a few years ago, he began to realize that — despite being on-paper successful — he wasn’t happy. “I was sitting in a grey cubicle 10 hours a day and still had little to show for it except a title and a stressful life,” he says, adding that it freaked him out that he could wake up and find out “I wasn’t needed anymore, and to have to start my career over at 49 years old.”

“I was disillusioned,” he says.

Dr. Marv

Joshua Zepess

Career reality bites for many Generation Xers, often defined as those born 1965 – 1980, like Zepess — even those who are exactly where they once wanted to be in their careers. Data released this week from LinkedIn Learning finds that Generation Xers are significantly more stressed out on the job than other generations, with 54% saying their jobs stress them out, versus 46% of millennials and 48% of baby boomers.

And recent data from MetLife found that only about two in three Generation Xers say they’re happy at work, compared to 75% of millennials and 74% of boomers. And a survey from recruitment firm Robert Half found that while just 8% of millennials said they were unhappy at work, 16% of Gen Xers did. They’re also more likely than millennials to be “actively disengaged” with their jobs, according to Gallup.

So what’s ailing Generation X in the workplace?

They’re the forgotten generation — at work. “Gen X feels less valued,” says Todd Katz, the executive vice president of group benefits for MetLife. Indeed, the new MetLife research reveals that only 54% of Gen Xers feel empowered at work and just 62% feel respected, and Gen X thinks that their employers are not providing them with timely promotions, exposure to senior leadership and other crucial things.

Ways your employer makes you feel valued and appreciated

Millennials Gen Xers

By offering timely promotions

24% 16%

By providing access to senior leadership

24% 19%

By identifying meaningful work projects

25% 16%

Source: MetLife

And they might have a point: “Gen Xers have kind of been left out,” says Katz — as employers spent many years focused on the boomers, and then in the past 10 years the millennials. That may be partially due to their numbers: there are 85 million millennials and 77 million boomers, but just 65 million Gen Xers, according to Pew.

“Due to the sheer volume of millennials in the workplace and their strong opinions about how it should be, companies are adjusting their policies to meet millennials’ needs,” says Foram Sheth, co-founder and certified coach at Ama La Vida. “Because millennials’ perspectives are often vastly different from those of Gen Xers, millennials tend to ‘win’ as companies shape their cultures and operations to attract and retain millennials.”

Of course, some of this is about disillusionment with work as we age — with some data showing boomers are just as unhappy with work as Gen Xers. But Gen Xers have unique challenges that makes their misery, in some ways, more acute.

They’re pulled in many different directions. One big reason they’re miserable at work: it’s yet another responsibility weighing them down. While boomers are often empty nesters and many millennials haven’t started families yet, many Gen Xers are in the thick of it. More than 75% of Gen Xers have children; and nearly half have both a parent who’s over 65 and a child.

Still, many companies don’t do enough to accommodate caregivers — as Portland, Mich., resident Shelly Schneider, 39, learned the hard way, when she took on an insurance job a couple years ago after taking some time off to raise her kids.

“They wouldn’t let me take even an hour to do something with the kids,” she says of the company. “The one time I left early was when my child was very sick — and I still only left a half hour early.” That pushed Schneider, who now runs an ecommerce site — to quit last year: “They were unaccommodating to people with family … I have never been happier to have left someplace.”

There’s sometimes a technology gap, says Ryan Sutton, the district president for Robert Half Technology and The Creative Group. Indeed, while many younger workers grew up with computers, social media and other technology, many Gen Xers did not.

“They don’t always have the innate comfort level with technology that their younger counterparts have, nor do they have the charm of the boomers learning new tech. This can put them in a difficult spot of feeling embarrassed,” says Sheth.

It’s mid-life crisis time — at least for some, says Sheth. “The influx of millennials and their focus on fulfillment combined with Gen Xers’ children getting older has created an environment where they are beginning to question everything. They are now starting to ask, “Is money enough? How do I do something that’s going to make me fulfilled? What do I want from life?,” she explains. “This newfound reflection can be overwhelming and unsettling.”

So what’s the solution? Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of “Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love,” says that Gen Xers should hone in on what it is they like to do -— and try to do more of it.

“If you love to be creative, look for ways within your job — or within your company — that you can be creative,” she says. And “look for ways to align your values with what you do. While this may mean changing jobs, it can often mean changing your focus. For example, if leading is a value that is important to you, can you mentor someone at your job or outside of work?,” she adds.

Finally, Lombardo advises Gen Xers to “set boundaries and drop the guilt: When you are home, be present with your family and friends. When you are working, focus on work. Give yourself a break that you have to ‘do it all’ and, instead, be present with the task at hand.”

This story was originally published in March and has been updated on April 16, 2019 with new data from LinkedIn.

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