Targeting generation X, Pt. 4
By Jason Kestler
Kestler Financial Group, Inc.
Editor's note: This is the fourth article in a six-part series. Click here to read the first in the series.
The name alone conjures up mystery and a bit of darkness. As the story is told, the term arose from a novel in which the author, claiming his generation tired of all the labels marketers and others insisted on placing upon them, said to just refer to them as generation "X" — the one without labels. Naturally, that name became the label.
"Xers," as we'll call them for short, are in many ways stuck with the classic "little brother or sister trying to live up to big brother or sister's reputation" syndrome. After all, how can anyone top a tidal wave like the boomers? So much change occurred during the boomer rise to adulthood that Xers often complain nothing was left for them but to clean up the debris from the party. One intriguing comment by an Xer was basically, "you have to remember we are the generation our parents took the pill to avoid." Ouch!
Yet during the formative years of the Xers, little occurred to dispute this assumption. They saw one or both of their parents focused primarily on succeeding at work. In one estimate, boomers added so many hours to the typical 40-hour work week that they were effectively at the office an extra month per year. Many Xers, when asked to embrace change, will think "You embrace change — I lived it." Xers were the first generation to largely come home from school to an empty house — hence the term "latch-key kids." Instead of mom making cookies in the kitchen, they grew up with television as babysitter and companion. They learned how to pack up and move, for a few days or months, from one parent's house to another, then back again. Soon, their family encompassed multiple homes, multiple parents, and multiple siblings.
One positive aspect of this disruption is that Xers seem to have exceptionally strong empathy with others. In this new extended family where there may be multiple divorces and remarriages, and more than one of the "adults" may not be speaking to one or more of the others, it is the Xer that forms the common bond among them. It is the Xer's graduation that all will attend. It is at the Xer's wedding where the long estranged parents may finally agree to be in the same room. It is often the Xer who arranges family reunions and provides "neutral turf" for family get-togethers. Having to be the one person who has to get along with everyone seems to have given Xers great skill in maintaining relationships among many varied personalities and individuals. Unlike the boomers, who saw a future that could only get better with enough effort and growth, Xers often were told how they would be the first generation that might be worse off than their parents. The world sometimes seemed engaged in a conspiracy to prove they had nowhere to turn and nothing they could depend upon. Foreign countries cut off the oil and for the first time, a president was forced to resign from office — after his vice-president had done so earlier in a financial scandal. Hundreds of religious faithful killed themselves in Jonestown, Three Mile Island nearly melted down, and huge corporations suddenly decided massive layoffs were the key to future prosperity. As if that wasn't enough, while boomers talk of recalling exactly where they were when they heard President Kennedy got shot, Xers can tell you exactly where they were when they saw the space shuttle Challenger explode.
In the business environment, these factors combined to create what boomers often refer to derisively as "slackers." Yet the reality is quite the opposite. Xers as a group are highly ambitious, and just as driven to win the game as the boomers. The difference lies in what the definition of "winning" is. For example, the seniors felt loyalty as an employee was a guarantee of loyalty from the employer. Boomers felt loyalty as an employee was a negotiating point to gain the loyalty of the employer — at least long enough to take over the place.
Consider Xers, then. Having seen how businesses will seemingly jettison anyone at any time if it fits a business purpose, the idea of a company being loyal became a myth. And as for trading employee loyalty for at least some gain in status and benefits, watching their parent's pursue such a path and seeing it lead to breakdowns in families and the sacrifice of personal lives for business success led many Xers to conclude that the price is just too high. As many have phrased it, while boomers live to work, Xers work to live. And that difference in attitudes has led to havoc in the workplace.
From a financial perspective, although Xers are often thought of as spendthrifts who soak off their parents, the reality is again the opposite. In a world of no guarantees, it is important to look out for oneself. Financial professionals who work with Xers talk of their conservatism in savings and investments. To those who complain that too many Xers still live with their parents, the Xer response is often "Why not? It's cheaper, they seem willing to let me stay, and besides, they're nice folks when they're around." While some see Xers putting off marriage and starting families as a sign they can't make a commitment, the Xer responds, "After having seen the mistakes my parents made, I prefer to wait until I'm sure I've found the right one. Besides, I want it to last a lifetime, so what's the hurry?" In support of this opinion is the fact that Xers are marrying in large numbers — just at a much later age than previous generations.
These are the last children of the boomers and the first children of the Xers. In numbers, they are nearly as large as the boomers, and far in excess of the Xers. Thus, they represent a huge opportunity for marketers and businesses that can understand their needs and cater to their wants.
Since they are just now making their entrance onto the employment and insurance consumer stage, much is yet to be discovered about their workplace attitudes and financial preferences. However, a few general statements can be made, both to file for future reference and to reinforce the fact that if you are not making plans for the future, you're going to miss out on these folks as well.
For those who support the theory that generations are cyclical, and that eventually everything returns to where it once was, the "nexters," as we'll call them, are tantalizing proof. They appear to have much in common with the seniors in stability and acceptance of the status quo. In contrast to that sad comment by the Xer about parents taking the pill to avoid them, nexters are the golden children. Their parents' lives clearly revolve around them. These are the children of soccer moms. Their parents volunteer in record numbers to help in the classroom, and think nothing of pulling their child out of school for "more important" experiences such as family vacations. Where Xers and even boomers grew up with a babysitter while their parents went out, nexters are more than likely to be taken along to the restaurant as a family outing. College recruiters tell of the kids visiting the campus with their parents, and it's the parents who are grilling the university staff on campus crime statistics and social opportunities.
It is clear to nexters that they are loved by their parents, but also society. They have had little trouble finding jobs during school, since the much smaller Xer group was never quite enough to fill the lower level jobs the boomers were leaving behind on their rise up the corporate ladder. The national unemployment rate was at an all-time low as the nexters came of working age — they've grown up seeing "help-wanted" signs in those first havens of teen employment: fast food restaurants.
One defining attribute of nexters is that they have grown up immersed in technology. So much so that is it largely invisible to them. Doesn't everyone have a cell phone? As a result, they are connected to each other as a generation far beyond any that came before. If you doubt their clear superiority in the technology area, ask any parent who's had to have their 5-year old explain how to play an Xbox game.