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Why Gen-X Doesn't Get Millennials...or Boomers

Millennials and their Boomer parents have much in common—unlike Gen-X.

Boomer and Millennials
Boomer and Millennials understand each other--unlike Gen-X
istock.com
I am a card-carrying member of what popular myth refers to as the Me Generation—the dreaded Baby Boomers. According to popular wisdom, we accomplished nothing more than moving to the suburbs, and bringing about an economic downturn. According to a Zogby Interactive poll of 4,811 adults, when asked about the legacy of the baby boom generation, 42 percent said the baby boom legacy is consumerism and self-indulgence.

It has also become fashionable to bash Millennials, who are by and large the offspring of Boomers. They are called supremely self-interested, entitled narcissists who spend all their time posting selfies to Facebook. But the facts on both these generations suggest otherwise.

In Baby Boomers: All You Ever Needed to Know, David Neilson sets the record straight about Boomers this way:

They have been called the "Me Generation" because they were the first generation to take a breather between childhood and adulthood and explore being young. They got married later, had kids later, and spent lavishly on themselves. Conversely, they are also one of the most active and selfless generations ever. Their continual fight against injustice created the women's movement, the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests and much more.

Now take a look at Millennials. According to the report "Are Millennials Reshaping Politics in the Northwest", Millennials believe more strongly in state and local government, but they largely shun political party labels. They care much more deeply about issues than candidates, one reason why same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization are getting so much traction... From the According to a National Conference on Citizenship poll:

Millennials so far appear to be considerably more civically engaged than their immediate predecessors, "Generation X." The voting turnout of young adults (ages 18-29) almost doubled in the 2008 primaries and caucuses compared to the most recent comparable year (2000). There were also substantial youth turnout increases in 2004 and 2006. The Millennials so far appear to be considerably more civically engaged than their immediate predecessors, “Generation X.” Youth volunteering rates are higher in the 2000s than they were in the 1990s.

Millennials have brought us the raucous protests of Occupy Wall Street, which were indeed reminiscent of anti-Vietnam protests. But they have infused their unique brand of social activism with a cheerful optimism that is as rare as it is refreshing. Millennials don't distrust authorities, as we did. Maybe that’s because the Boomers are now the authorities, and we’ve worked hard to keep their trust. We are proud of them—their savvy, their courage in the face of an increasingly uncertain world, and their determination to build a better future for themselves and the rest of us.

But we seem to be enigmas to Gen-X who can't seem to figure out why we behave the way we do.

Many have written about the seeming cyncism and self-interest of Gen-X compared to Boomers or Millennials. But to put things in perspective, much of that seems to have more applicable to Gen-X in their youth. The differences noted by employers, however, seem to be more enduring. Gen-Xers tend to be highly independent and goal-oriented, focusing on getting the corner office and other trappings of success. Millennials and Boomers, in contrast, value purpose and meaning in their careers over money or power. This is sometimes summarized as "Gen-X lives to work, while Boomers and Millennials work to live."

Gen-Xers also do better in structured hierarchical environments, and they tend to excel in positions of authority. Boomers and Millennials, on the other hand, tend to prefer less structured environments, and they don't necessarily excel in positions of authority. A Forbes article summarized the differences this way:

...Xers view the boss as an expert—someone whose hard-earned experience and skill demand consideration and deference. Access to authority is limited and must be earned.
By contrast, Senderoff says, “Millennials think they can go in on the first day and talk to the CEO about what’s on their mind. The Generation X manager thinks, ‘What are you doing??’”

But ... it’s only natural for millennials to feel that way, given how their Boomer parents raised them to believe that their voice matters.

Some writers have gone so far as to put most of the blame for the economic downturn on Gen-X shoulders: According to Greg Smith, a senior executive at Goldman Sachs, blamed the meltdown of the financial industry to the toxic Generation-X culture that was prevalent at Goldman.

According to this article published in US News, Generation X was most to blame for the meltdown of the real estate market.

The largest percentage of households in foreclosure belonged to those in Generation X—in particular, Gen-Xers who had high average household income ($59,500) and years of education (14.8 years). It seems counter intuitive that a well-educated and affluent group of families would lead the foreclosure charge. Yet this group of households made up more than one in 10 foreclosures. How do affluent families end up in foreclosure?

Whether these claims are entirely accurate, everyone seems to agree on one thing: To Gen-X, Boomers and Millennials are incomprehensible, and seem to waste time on things that don't further one's self-interest or one's career. But Boomers and Millennials seem to understand each other just fine. We want the world to be a better place when we leave it than it was when we arrived. Gen-X needs to keep that in mind in order to understand what makes us tick.

 

Copyright April 3, 2014 Dr. Denise Cummins

Updated April 21, 2014

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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