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On Being a Gen X Job Hunter in a Gen Z Market

From Wikipedia:

“The Summer of Love was a social phenomenon that occurred during the summer of 1967, when as many as 100,000 people, mostly young people sporting hippie fashions of dress and behavior, converged in San Francisco's neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. More broadly, the Summer of Love encompassed the hippie music, hallucinogenic drugs, anti-war, and free-love scene throughout the West Coast of the United States, and as far away as New York City.”

... And then a lot of babies were born within the first 6 months of 1968. And those babies, who came of age in the 70’s and 80’s watching cartoons like Scooby Doo and movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, are 55 years old this year. Believe it or not, we've been a highly productive part of the economy for just over 30 years now.

Like any generation there have been very formidable moments burned into our memories the same way the assassination of JFK imprinted on our parents or Pearl Harbor on their parents. For those of us growing up in the United States perhaps the first most significant imprint-able moment in our lives was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Many of us got our information about the world around us mainly from 3 television networks, one or two newspapers, our parents and teachers. MTV came in our teenage years and for many the primary source of new information came from that cable network (and not all of us had cable). And while some significant events happened over the couple decades that followed, like Operation Desert Storm, none would be as seminal and imprint-able as 9-11. On that day we watched what was happening in real time while we were getting our own children ready to go to school.

Here in the heart of Silicon Valley, time has also been marked by various tectonic (tech-tonic?) shifts in the market that have had such a significant impact on how we work and what we do for work. The “tech bubble” bursting in 2000 caused significant layoffs and drove a re-invention of the industry. The 2008 financial crisis dealt a significant blow to the job market as sector after sector felt the repercussions of the issues that drove that downturn.

Now, after quite the run of a booming economy, even through the adversity of political administrations and off-shoring of nearly all and re-shoring of some manufacturing sectors, we find ourselves again in a time of uncertainty. While the officially reported unemployment numbers seem to be on the lower side, that information does not account for the vast numbers of people who have decided to leave the job market altogether either by choice or by happen-stance. I heard recently that unemployment would be much higher if we counted everyone who is “under-employed”, those that took a step back in their career just to get any kind of job as a means for survival, even when their skill set lends itself to a higher paying job. Additionally, many of our baby boomer parents have retired since the last recession and even more of their contemporaries retired as a response to Covid. So none of those folks are included in those unemployment statistics any longer.

So here we are, at 55 years old, again witnessing a rough patch in the economy. While many of us weathered the earlier market adjustments and downturns, many of us also now find ourselves on the front lines among the masses who are seeking their next opportunity. We were in our jobs and careers long enough to reach a pinnacle of earning potential, perhaps even a pinnacle of job level. Dare I say, at this point, it may seem as though we have peaked? What better time to put us out to pasture? “Always go out on top” as they say.

Our generation has also heard for much of our lives, “40 is the new 30” or “50 is the new 40” so how did 55 become the new 65? It’s not that we wouldn’t love the opportunity to retire right now and while away our days not answering to anyone but our partners and our children. However, we are not only not ready for that, but we also may not be able to afford it. We are a generation where we encouraged and provided for our children to get a good education and enter the workforce. And here is where Gen Z comes in.

Again from Wikipedia:

Generation Z (or more commonly Gen Z for short), colloquially known as zoomers, is the demographic cohort succeeding Millennials and preceding Generation Alpha. Researchers and popular media use the mid-to-late 1990s as starting birth years and the early 2010s as ending birth years. Most members of Generation Z are children of Generation X.”

Gen Z-ers are the first real internet generation. I remember my adolescence, spent flocking to my neighbors house to check out the new Radio Shack TRS-80 that her parents brought home like a new baby from the hospital. Alternatively, these Gen Z-ers would start their teenage years sitting around the kitchen table playing Snake on their Nokia phones and end up living on Instagram and Snapchat as they went off to college. For us the home computer was a very “WOW!” moment in our lives. For them technology is ever present and a rotary telephone is a very different kind of “wow” moment.

Gen Z-ers (can you tell I don’t want to use the term “zoomers”?) can also be found on LinkedIn announcing their recent promotion to management. That is super exciting and I remember very well when my first promotion happened to me ... several decades ago. These folks are true multi-taskers, they are taking on project after project and executing them at break-neck speed. Even as I type this I realize how dated and out of touch Gen X-ers may seem not only for the terms that they use but also the perception of how Gen Z-ers execute on their objectives. They are incredibly talented, very confident, and willing to make mistakes in ways that may not have been. Our work environments have touted that it’s okay to ask questions and make mistakes, but for many of us Gen X-ers we would have feared for our jobs at the slightest error.

There is also an element of the dynamic between the Z-ers and X-ers to factor in. Because so many X-ers have children that are Z-ers it may be challenging to navigate in a work environment where people are so closely aligned to those roles when relating to one another.

All of that is to demonstrate how tough it is to be a Gen X job hunter in a Gen Z market. There are other elements that can’t help but highlight the differences between the generations. When it comes to things like multitasking, Gen X-ers can say we are good at it and fake it all day long, but the Z-ers are really doing it. To test this, my fellow X-er, just try to watch TV and look at your phone at the same time... without nearly breaking your brain. The Gen Z-ers seem to bring more to the table right now and they are not as expensive to employ as a Gen X-er. The Gen Z-er’s may not have kids to deal with, home ownership issues like plumbing to deal with, etc. Whereas the Gen X-ers come with quite a bit of baggage, not only based on what we think about what the workplace is supposed to be, but all the other obligations in life that we have accumulated over time. In short, as much as it pains me to say it, the Gen Z-er really seems to be a "better value".

As you may have surmised however, considering where I am coming from generationally, I have an argument to make about that last point above. Rather than see a “better value” in a Gen Z-er than a Gen X-er, I prefer that we lean on the term “differently valued” when it comes to considering what a company gets out of hiring someone who falls into either of those generations (or any other generation for that matter).

What a Gen X-er brings to the table more than anything else is experience. Not just job experience but life experience. Not just success, but also probably a significant amount of failure and overcoming that failure. You can find many memes that tout us as the latch-key generation, where we had to come home from school to an empty house, make ourselves a snack, turn on the TV (without a remote), and keep the house clean until mom or dad got home. We became self-sufficient problem solvers at a very young age. We also love to teach others what we know so employers are not only getting people who can execute, but also people with enough experience to teach others how to do so as well. Additionally, because we have been alive since not all cars had seat belts to an age where multiple self driving air taxi companies are now popping up, we are highly adaptable and know that we still have a lot to offer and learn.

Several years ago, while in a global management role for talent acquisition a member of my team approached me and said, “we’re gonna hire a few interns for the summer, some of our managers could use some extra hands for the grunt work around here.” I said, “No, you can’t hire interns for that, they need to have more meat to their role than grunt-work, they need to be a cohort and not just a ‘bunch of interns’, and they each need to deliver on a project and report that out to the entire management team at the end of it.” He was stunned and not optimistic about something like that in our work environment. Ultimately, that is exactly what was delivered. It was a successful program and the feedback was overwhelmingly and unexpectedly positive, because this is what it also delivered on:

  • The managers and their teams loved having highly curious interns around that they could teach things to. In many cases they taught things that they had forgotten that they knew. This re-energized the teams.

  • The interns could not believe the vast knowledge and history that the more seasoned team members would share and they learned more than they expected.

  • The interns were able to show other employees how new technology could benefit the operation, but the seasoned employees helped to guide that implementation so as not to repeat prior mistakes that the interns would have never known to watch out for.

In fact, the Vice President of Engineering, a former Israeli military commander, who flew in to attend the intern presentation, emerged from the room wiping his eyes as he said to me, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know. This was the best summer intern program the company has ever had.”

Clearly, building a multi-generational workforce in this way boosted both productivity within the business as well as the morale throughout the company. A very good thing.

So then what is next? While the Gen X-er can have a wanton desire to demonstrate their value to any potential employer, what they really need to find is an employer with the willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom about hiring less experienced seemingly agile workers who will take off in any direction you point them in. X-ers need to find a company and hiring manager who is willing to value the significant amount of experience and understand the highly adaptable package that is a Gen X-er. Who will also take off in any direction they are pointed in, but with the experience of having done that before.

There is a story about the old man and the hammer, where he charged a very small fee for each blow of the hammer, but a much larger service fee for knowing where to hit based on his years of experience. Employers can hire highly capable experienced workers that will help them avoid cycles of errors and countless hours by hiring a solid Gen X-er. For many of us, we want to sink our teeth into some good work that we can be proud of for the next 10 years or so and then we’ll be ready to step out of the way for the next generation. We are eager to contribute, to prove our value, to pass on knowledge, to learn new things, to earn income, and to grow the business.

In an age where Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are among the highest values for any growing business, the hiring of people over 50 years old not only meets that objective, but also elevates the businesses and even the communities they live and work in.

Speaking as one of those products of the Summer of Love, I look forward to working with you, to teach you what I know, and to learn from you and many future generations.

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