X Marks The Spot Where A Generation Is Stuck In The Middle

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Ari B. Adler is an adjunct instructor at Michigan State University

For centuries, “X marks the spot” has referred to the location of buried treasure. But that X has new meaning for folks like me who are part of Generation X. It’s referencing where we are stranded – stuck between the Baby Boomer stalwarts and the Gen Y upstarts.

We are eager to learn new technology when it means staying one step ahead of the youngsters nipping at our heels. And we are able to translate the use and importance of that technology to an older generation fully embracing a reasonably successful past.

Gen X certainly has its flaws, but we hold a special place in the workforce that is difficult for the generations on either side of us to comprehend. Many Boomers aren’t as comfortable embracing technology and we often must force the issue. Meanwhile, the Gen Y folks often see us as a roadblock to implementing technology at the breakneck speed they seek. But with many of us serving in “middle management,” we have to slow them down lest they completely scare executives into a fetal position, warding off technology as some sort of corporate doomsday device.

Serving as a translator and conduit between generations isn’t easy. There are days when you find yourself frustrated with both generations. But those tend be balanced out by the thrill of serving as a translator. Convincing a Boomer to try something new and seeing their joy in taking a chance on something again and succeeding is a thrill. And helping a Gen Y’er slow down rather than rushing headlong into the same mistakes a Boomer made years before is rewarding.

I suppose, then, that perhaps X does still mark the spot for buried treasure, or at least a nugget of insight now and again. You just have to keep digging for it.

Ari B. Adler is a professional communicator and strategist with experience as a newspaper reporter and editor, as well as a government and corporate spokesperson. In addition to freelance consulting, he serves as communications administrator for Delta Dental of Michigan and is an adjunct instructor at Michigan State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @aribadler and read his blog at Here Comes Later.


14 comments on “X Marks The Spot Where A Generation Is Stuck In The Middle

  1. Great article, Ari; but I do think that convincing a ‘Boomer to try something new’ is much harder than anyone may think. I’ve worked for the provincial government of Alberta, and my supervisor was much older than I. He not only had little to no time for my ideas on technology, he continually reverted back to the well-this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it philosophy.

    Convincing an upper-echelon that you know what you’re talking about is hard enough – when you start throwing words like ‘Twitter’ and ‘blogs’ at them, you can almost watch their eyes glaze over.

    Ari, I’m a PR professional – new to the profession, yes, but confident – do you have any suggestions for a up-and-comer whose looking to successfully plant the technology bug in the ear of a Boomer?

    • Julianne,

      Trust me, I know very well how hard it is to convince Boomers that they and their companies need to be involved with social media. One key thing is serving not just as a resource about social media but as a translator as well. Help them understand the new technology in language they’ll understand and show them how it can positively impact the bottom line. In the end, all businesses are essentially trying to make a profit — if not, they cannot succeed.

      I’ve also found it helpful to have some analogies handy that Boomers can relate to. For example, when the Internet and e-mail started making their way into businesses, many people resisted them as a waste of time and a disruption to productivity. I imagine that if you went back far enough, the same would probably be said about telephones!

      There are some who will refuse to adapt but they won’t be able to hold out as long as you will. Stay committed and take every opportunity you have to showcase the power of social media, particularly if it is helping a competitor land more business than your company is. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting.

      ~ Ari

  2. You make some very interesting points, I have had a good amount of trouble convincing some of my bosses to embrace social media.

    Ari, in todays economy, with the global uptick among consumers not to mention consumer confidence as a whole taking a negative plunge the last few quarters do you see confidence in new social media staying on par with usage for multi-generational middle management?

    • Paula,

      I think the use of social media in business and personal lives will continue to grow. The Gen Y folks aren’t seeing it as a shiny new technology, they are seeing it as a normal part of their everyday lives. The times are changing fast and leaders must stay ahead of the curve. Services like Twitter have given us the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of corporate America in much the same way Dorothy peeked behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. Sometimes I think we should name the Twitter bird “Toto.” We will see social media evolve and I can’t say for certain which services will still be around in five years, but the concept certainly will be.

      ~ Ari

  3. I do see Gen X’s role as being important in today’s workforce. I like the idea of us being a translator, but I don’t agree that we should put the brakes on Gen Y. Remember all the strides that were made when we were their age? Those productivity improvements came because we ignored the Boomers and tried it our way. They didn’t all work out, but many did.

    So, instead of convincing Gen Y to take their foot off the throttle, let’s just help them steer the car.

    • Thanks for the comment Bil. I like your idea of steering Gen Y rather than taking their foot off the throttle. Still, sometimes you can’t steer safely if you are traveling too fast, so it’s our duty to convince them to at least tap the brakes now and again. 🙂

  4. Ari,
    Thanks for your perspective. I’m a GenXer as well. I found it very difficult to convince the Boomer generation at my old job to embrace new tech and social media. It was a daily battle.

    One of the things I’ve enjoyed about GenYers is that even though they are eager to get things done, they ultimately listen and want to learn. We may be stuck in the middle a bit, but I think that gives us a great look at the whole landscape.

    • I totally agree that we are in a great position in the workforce, even though it’s tough to see it that way some days. The challenges are many for Gen X right now, but from challenges we often are presented with opportunities. I plan on taking advantage of as many of those as I can as I step in front of my Gen Y colleagues to wave goodbye to the Boomers as they retire.

    • David,

      I think the key isn’t what can organizations do, but what can the Gen Xers do? Remember President Kennedy’s pitch asking what you can do for your country? The Boomers are entrenched in that philosophy when it comes to loyalty to a company. On the other hand, many Gen Y’ers seem focused more on what a company can do for them to earn their loyalty.

      Being the generation in the middle means having to show the Boomers that you can provide great value to a company because of your great mix of Gen Y-like talents and Boomer-like experience. Meanwhile, you can’t alienate the Gen Y folks who likely are reporting to you or whom you rely upon for support in the workforce. It’s not easy being stuck in the middle — which is the sentiment that led to my post in the first place!

      Thanks for the comment.

      ~ Ari

  5. Interesting post about genx geny comparisions. I find that many gen y’s have a sense of feeling as though they are owed something. That is, they give up far to easily. Yes, there are those who get it and see the opportunity, though the majority of Gen Y’s will use their native technology understanding more as a block to getting things done faster and better than a tool. Gen Y’s for the most part do not recognize how much opportunity exists today today. There has never been more economic opportunity in the world than this moment. Yet there is a massive failure on the part of Gen Y’s to truly take advantage of the opportunity of the next to zero start up cost of a business and the ability to reach a world market.

    Some Gen Y’s who do “get it” fail to see the wisdom of the ages that Gen X’s possess. There is something to be said for tenacity and not giving up when things get tough; a trait that is not common among Gen Y’s. They should read the book by Tony from Zappos. They see the result and say why not me? 99% of startups online fail for a reason. It’s not the idea. It’s a mental attitude of toughness that Gen Y’s would be wise to learn from Gen Xrs.

    So yes, X does mark a spot. Not the only spot but one where a convergence of knowledge could take place and turn the world economy around.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Tony. I think you’re selling a lot of Gen Y folks short, but I’m surrounded by a lot of intelligent, driven young people with tenacity. Maybe that’s because I live in a Big Ten University community and things are different elsewhere.

      I agree with you that the generation behind us tends to give up too easily. If things aren’t going their way at work and management isn’t immediately convinced to change its ways, their answer is to bail to another company. I don’t think they should stick it out no matter what like the Boomers tended to do, but perhaps they could learn a thing or two from Xers who understand the importance of trying something a few times and a few different ways before declaring it a failure.

      I read a saying the other day that I thought more Gen Y people should hear: “Maybe the grass is greener on the other side because you’re not taking care of yours.”


      ~ Ari

  6. I live in the real world of internet start ups and tend to see a lack of tenacity when it comes to execution. It’s very easy to be excited about an idea at the beginning, though completing it is a different story. This may not be a mutually exclusive condition though. If you’re talking entrepreneurship, there is a reason why so few entrepreneurs succeed. It may have nothing to do with a generational divide.

    University is also a very safe environment to be excited in. It will be interesting to see how different their actual paradigm shifting performances are compared to Gen X’s. Let’s not forget where the shift in technological innovation and who laid the foundation for the opportunities we now have.

    • Tony, you’re right that the world of start-ups isn’t all the glamor a lot of Gen Y folks seem to think it is. There are too many convinced that having their own start-up business means quick fame and fortune, but the reality is often much different. Fame and fortune may very well come to a lot of people we hear reported about, but no one reports on the sweat equity involved or on those startups that crumble.

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