What if Gen Xers aren’t ambitious anymore?

I ran across a Harvard Business Review article this week about how Gen Xers aren’t getting promoted at the same rates as Millennials and Baby Boomers – and companies are going to face big retention challenges as a result. While I tend to be skeptical of overarching statements of entire generations, I was interested to read about the data behind these conclusions.

The first thing that struck me is how often my career coaching clients express a similar concern of feeling overlooked, that their previous success with putting their heads down and working hard is not being noticed or rewarded anymore. The data support this feeling:

Currently, only 58% of Gen X feels that they are advancing within their organization at an acceptable rate, as compared with 65% of Millennials. While Gen X has been loyal up until now, this frustration is approaching a breaking point for Gen X leaders who have advanced to higher-level management roles.

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While I think many Gen Xers have been comfortable with working hard at the same place for a while because they have responsibilities to fulfill to support their families and other commitments, so many of them are reaching a point of questioning what all this work is for. If they’re not appreciated or contributing to something that gets them excited – what’s the point?

The assertion in the article I take issue with is this:

But [Gen Xers’] unambitious reputation may be holding them back in the workplace, as new data reveals Gen X to be the “leapfrog” generation, overlooked for promotions at higher rates than their counterparts in other generations.

What I wonder about is whether many Gen Xers really want to be ambitious – especially when so many of them question the moral compass or ethics of the companies they’ve been loyal to for years. If many Gen Xers have realized these companies are making questionable decisions – while also contributing to problems like climate change and economic disparities – then why be ambitious? Why bother climbing the ladder of leadership only to be saddled with decisions that might have a negative impact on the world their children are growing up in? 

I suspect a lot of Gen Xers feel stuck. They have financial obligations to fulfill, between houses and kids and retirement funds. They’ve invested time building careers. They’re getting older, and are afraid they won’t be attractive candidates for other opportunities as a result. They know their careers aren’t going to end as their parents’ have. 

And they feel a pull from within to chart a different course for themselves. 

This place of feeling stuck is overwhelming. The risk of leaving feels too great. And they don’t have clarity on what this new path looks like, or even how to find it.

My role as a coach is to help my clients find that new path – or set of paths. To help them get clarity on what really matters to them, and then build a career search around those priorities. 

As a generation, Gen Xers might be charting a new path on what work can look like in the future.

What do you think?

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