Showdown At Mid-life Corral

January 22, 2002

"Now it’s the under-35s who are singing 'why don’t you all f-f-fade away,’" says David Higgins.

For a decade we have been the slackers. Fathered by fiction writer Douglas Coupland in 1991 and raised in a world of self-absorbed baby boomers, Generation X was written off from the beginning. "Survivors of a childhood of divorce, latchkeys, open classrooms and devil-child movies, the children of the 1960s and 1970s inhabited a Reality Bites economy of declining young adults,” wrote US social researchers William Strauss and Neil Howe in the early 1990s. Strauss and Howe, who classified the generations back to the War of the Roses, named us the 13th generation for both numerical and emblematic reasons. Time magazine reassessed the Grunge kids in 1997 as they matured into dot com entrepreneurs. Boomers were warned not to underestimate the so-called Generation X "[which] turns out to be full of go-getters who are just doing it but their way.” They didn’t listen. The slacker label was already ingrained.

"[Our] parents’ friends always had advice for the young girls doing some sewing,” recalls 34-year-old fashion designer Nicole Zimmermann.

"More often than not [boomers] would put quiet determination into you, because you were so pissed off at them you’d go 'I’ll show you,’ and in the end the tables have completely and utterly turned.”

The Zimmermann name is one of Australia’s most internationally successful fashion labels.

There are other 30-something success stories but not as many as there should be. As the first of the boomers retire, logically, the first of the Gen X-ers should be inheriting positions of power, and not before time. The first of us turned 40 this year. McJobs, green jeans and Kurt Cobain are long-faded memories.

But the boomers, buoyed by the collapse of the uppity dot commers, are showing no signs that they will retire at 55. What, and leave the world in the hands of slackers? How many Chernobyl meltdowns, Boo.coms and Barings Bank collapses can a planet take?

The trend to early retirement is slowing, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Extended working lives are more common around the world. One US study showed 80 per cent of boomers intend to keep working after retirement.

"It seems to be an issue [for boomers],” says Timothy Schwan, the 31-year-old group managing director of Di Jones Real Estate.

"I don’t want to let go, I want to keep control of the purse strings and the company and not pass it through to Generation X. I think there’s a small power battle already between the generations. You’re going to find the boomers reaching 55 and staying right where they are."

You will find that some Generation X-ers who are incredibly smart, fantastic, articulate managers and could have done fantastic things, going brown because they haven’t had their chance. But others will fight against the baby boomers. "I think you’ll find there will be a rebellion. There has to be, because these people will be running the companies at 70 or 80 or 90,” says Schwan.

Exactly how such a battle might develop is unclear. In the workplace, the younger generation lost credibility when e-commerce flopped. "That setback won’t last long, because X-ers aren’t the type to sit around," says Dr Marjorie Kibby, from the University of Newcastle’s sociology and anthropology department.

"Boomers were handed their positions of power, but Gen X-ers seize the opportunity,” says Kibby.

"Their experience is that not everyone will get a turn, and if you wait you’re lost. The generation gap is already a war zone in the workplace, at least where there are cross-generational consulting firms’ to sort out the relationships.”

One such US consultant, Marilyn Moats Kennedy, who has written six books on office politics, has identified likely flashpoints between boomers and busters:

  • Technology and communication: Gen X loses patience with older workers who aren’t computer literate. Reared on Nintendo and the Web, the young are built for multi-tasking with little instruction.
  • Loyalty: Gen X-ers don’t expect employment for life as boomers did, often swapping jobs every two or three years. Boomers may regard Gen X-ers as selfish for eschewing corporate culture in favour of self-development skills in preparation for the next employer.
  • Motivation: Boomers are motivated by money, but Gen X-ers place higher value on holiday time.
  • Team work: Boomers are happy in workgroups; Gen X-ers from a smaller generation prefer individual assignments.

"Few employers are aware of such cultural differences and even fewer do anything about it," says Kennedy. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that clashes take place.

"If the workplace has been set up by boomers for boomers, then the office is a microcosm of the nation," according to Senator Kate Lundy, the 34-year-old federal shadow minister for IT and sport.

"The preponderance of the boomer generation and its self-obsession can be seen in Australian public policy," says Lundy.

In a speech last year, she said: "The values of baby boomers continue to guide parties of all persuasions…. It is important to acknowledge the existence of this inherent bias [but it] does not necessarily constitute a flaw in our democracy."

"Indeed it is recognition that our democratic structures are serving our society according to the needs of the largest common group in our population. However, it also means young people hardly rate a mention.”

When Lundy and her Gen X contemporaries such as Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, 32, and Greens Senator Kerry Nettle, 27 finally inherit real power, they will be more interested in re-balance than revenge, she says.

"It doesn’t mean the boomers aren’t going to be represented, it means the X-ers will be better represented and because we experienced what we experienced, we know what it’s like to be neglected as a generation.”

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