Gen X Makes its Mark

August 16, 2015 | By Adam Richter

None of them remember the John F. Kennedy assassination. Many were born after the Beatles broke up. When Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, they were too young to vote.

They are Generation X, and believe it or not, they are getting old.

This year marks the year that the first Gen Xers turn 50. Sandwiched between the baby boomers and the Millennials, Generation X has spent a long time in the shadow of both. First, they were the untrusted offspring that followed boomers. (Rosemary's Baby would be in his late 40s now; the eponymous film came out in 1968.) Then they became the elders of the Millennials, the doted generation raised by helicopter parents and obsessed over by marketers.

It's a gap so pronounced that the Pew Research Center, in a 2014 report, called Gen X "America's neglected 'middle child.' "

Now that Gen X has reached midlife, it's worth taking another look at them. No longer disaffected youth, Xers are homeowners, business owners, parents and politicians. We know that as boomers age they're redefining what it is to be senior citizens. How are Xers redefining middle age?

"Every generation transforms the new phase of life they're moving into," said Neil Howe, a historian and demographer. "A phase of life or age bracket is an empty room. Different generations move into that room, they occupy it for a while, then they leave."

Howe is the founding partner and president of Lifecourse Associates, a Great Falls, Va.,-based consulting company. He studies generational issues and, with his late business partner Bill Strauss, co-authored more than a dozen books. Among them is 1993's "13th Gen: Abort, Ignore, Retry, Fail?" about Generation X.

Though many marketers consider 1965 the birth year of Generation X, Howe says 1961 was the cutoff between late-stage boomers and early-stage Gen Xers.

More than two decades after the publication of "13th Gen," Howe said, the characteristics that he and Strauss wrote about remain present as yesterday's 20-somethings become today's 50-somethings.

"I think they bring a certain pragmatism, survivalism, an ethic of free agency," Howe said. "They certainly have a less collective self-esteem than boomers did."

'It works for me'

They've rarely dominated the national conversation, so Gen Xers are content to fly under the radar, Howe said. When they entered the workforce, they were less interested than those of previous generations in becoming part of a greater good.

How true is that? It's complicated, especially when talking to individual Gen Xers. Take Michael Malinowski. On top of his roles on numerous community boards and as a Muhlenberg Township commissioner, Malinowski, 42, is a vice president at Engle-Hambright and Davies Inc., an insurance company in Wyomissing.

He is not as interested in flying under the radar. From the beginning, he said, he wanted to play a bigger role in the privately held company.

"I thought that if I can do pretty good, I can have a stake in the game and become a stakeholder," Malinowski said.

Karen Haver, 45, is executive director of the Berks Arts Council. Her enthusiasm for arts got Haver started on her career path. She graduated with a theater degree from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and worked for a while for the Media Theatre in Media, Delaware County.

But while in college, Haver was a temp. Her expectations of what work ought to be line up with what Howe said Generation X felt about it.

"I didn't want to do the come in, punch the clock this is what my job is going to be," she said.

Harsh economics play a role. The 1991 recession hit Gen Xers the hardest, according to "13th Gen." The first big downturn they experienced since entering the workforce resulted in net job losses for their age group (30 and under) but not for the older brackets. Howe said the 2008 downturn was also disproportionately harsh for Generation X.

"They've experienced the most traumatic withdrawal from the labor force, which still hasn't really healed yet," he said.

As a result, Gen Xers have had to find other ways to make ends meet. They became less interested in chasing a lifestyle or finding the American Dream, Howe said.

"It's much more piecing together your own dream and not really caring about what other people think about it," he said.

Howe said one of his favorite Gen X expressions from the 1990s sums up that viewpoint: "It works for me."

For Johanny Cepeda, owner of Mi Casa Su Casa, 320 Penn St., that motto might be more true than ever. Cepeda used to define success by material possessions: Get a house by a certain age, have a nice car, etc.

Before she came to Reading, Cepeda was a professional in New York City.

She has since redefined success, and she's noticed that many of her friends have, as well. As a result, Cepeda said, when she looks around her social circle, she sees a group of successful people - never mind the economic yardsticks.

"We're independent, and we don't sit back and wait for things to come to us," Cepeda said. "To me, success is if you are happy with where you are in life."

The flip side of ownership

Redefining success on your own terms is fine, but what about the children? Howe said Gen Xers usually don't bother with anything that isn't important to them. That means they won't seek out unfulfilling work, but it also means they might not volunteer at the local school - unless their child goes there.

Howe sees this all the time in Fairfax County, where he lives. Boomers will readily volunteer and serve on school board committees, but Gen Xers don't.

"That's how Xers make do in a world in which they think institutions don't work very well," he said.

Don't tell that to Malinowski. Yes, he volunteers as a basketball coach for his children. He also serves on the board of the Greater Reading Economic Partnership, Reading Area Community College board of trustees and is financial secretary at the Northmont Fellowship Association.

"It's about working hard, prioritizing the right things," he said.

Cepeda, too, is more than a business owner. She volunteers frequently, and earlier this year she opened the back of her restaurant for attendees at a Reading job fair to get a haircut and find good interview suits.

Oh, and she ran unsuccessfully for City Council in May against Jeffrey Waltman, who at 46 is also a Gen Xer and recently was voted interim council president to replace Francis Acosta, who resigned after pleading guilty to a federal criminal charge of conspiracy and admitting he took a $1,800 bribe in April.

This doesn't mean Howe is wrong, or that Cepeda and Malinowski are the exceptions who prove the rule. It means that for them, and for the many other Gen Xers who volunteer or hold public office, that kind of service is important to them.

Generation X spent the last half-century looking for, as Howe calls it, "that little corner where you can thrive." Sometimes the traditional institutions of marriage, home ownership, government and the workplace have provided it, but more often, they haven't. And Gen Xers have learned to adapt.

"You can't just say, be a cog in the wheel for the good of the machine," Howe said. "That's why I get back to that whole business of ownership: 'You gotta show me how I can own this thing and shake up this institution and make it work.' Because most Xers think right now things don't work."

Haver has some advice for Millennials and the kids who will succeed them: Follow your passion but remember that everyone else is also following their passion.

"As our world gets smaller, we forget about respect sometimes," she said. "I don't think that's specific to any generation."