Generation X and the Narrowing Career Path

Melissa, a talented Gen X'er, is given a promotion that puts her in direct contention for a key senior spot. Although her Boomer colleagues are offering their congratulations, Melissa finds herself feeling vaguely uneasy. She is reaching a point in her career where the path seems to be narrowing suddenly and precipitously. There look to be very few options for the next possible step. Her enthusiastic and supportive Boomer boss has presented the promotion as the next step on an inevitable path — her "final hurdle" before taking on his job.

"I'd better be cautious," she mused.

Why does Melissa feel uneasy?

I suspect her concerns stem from a desire to keep multiple options open. Many X'ers tend to be very wary of putting all their eggs in one corporate basket. They don't like to be pigeon-holed or pushed out on a limb of specialization — with the inherent danger of a whimsical corporation sawing that limb off behind them during the next restructuring. One of their highest priorities is keeping their options open and their skills diverse — to be as self-reliant as possible. And they don't like it when Boomers assume they're interested only in the "obvious" career path choice.

The genesis of these concerns lies in the experiences Melissa would have shared with other members of her generation when they were teens in the late '70s, '80s and early '90s, times of economic uncertainty and domestic social change.

X'ers' teen years were a time of major corporate restructuring. The psychological contracts between employers and employees, established through the '60s, were being ripped apart as large scale lay-offs accompanied the re-engineering and downsizing initiatives of the '80's. I think it's a safe assumption that there is no one in their 30s today who, as a teen, did not know some adult who was laid off from a corporation where he or she had planned to spend an entire career. The sense of unease when it comes to corporate commitments is an almost universally shared view among Generation X.

On the home front, many X'ers also lived through a significant shift in the social fabric. In the U.S., for the first time since war efforts, women entered the workforce in major numbers — mom was home for many X'ers when they were small and went to work during their teen years. Some of the impetus for women working outside the home came from rising divorce rates — during X'ers' teen years, divorce rates in the U.S. rose from 20% to 50%. They were first generation labeled "latch key kids" — home alone in the afternoons, leaning on their friends for companionship and support.

These teen experiences combined to leave most X'ers valuing self-reliance — and placing the ability to control their own destinies as a very high priority.

What steps might Melissa take to feel more comfortable?

For many X'ers, the fundamental mistrust of institutions is causing many to dream of leaving corporate life. Some of the most popular programs in MBA curricula today are, in fact, classes in entrepreneurship.

But those who stay in corporations can create broader options, as well. If you're feeling boxed in, begin by identifying at least six positions in the firm that you might like to hold in the future. For each, understand the skills, capabilities and experience that would be required to take on the position. Are there ways that you could gain some of these skills as part of your current role — perhaps through closer collaboration with another group in the company or volunteering to be part of task force? Is there a key skill that you'll need to gain through education? Most important, let the organization know that you'd like to develop your skills more broadly — and enlist support in achieving your goals.

Your preferences are likely to be different from those of the Boomers who held similar positions a few years ago. You need to play a role in helping the organization understand that your goals may be a bit different. Most corporations will be delighted to help you develop a broader set of skills — if they understand that's what you want.

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