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Why Gen-Xers Become Ex-ers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“It’s easier to relate to co-workers my grandfather’s age than it is to boomers,” says Mitchell, a 1993 UCLA graduate who recently quit his third, and he insists, last office manager job. “You know, the Depression, low wages, a lack of opportunities.”

This Gen-Xer, who was reluctant to reveal his last name, gripes that every baby boomer from the president on down wants to convince his generation that boomers are hip. That they are friends. And that they are truly sorry that his generation will never be able to afford homes, children or health insurance. “At least old people don’t pretend to like or understand us.”

To listen to some twentysomethings tell it, life sounds pretty bleak under the yoke of boomer bosses intimidated by the techno-savvy of their young, energetic and underpaid Gen-X laborers. Lots of people reject such stereotypes. But Jim Brewin, a 47-year-old catering manager at the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood, says the cliches contain some truth.

What workers born between 1969 and 1979 require, says Brewin, isn’t mentoring as much as surrogate parenting. “They have different priorities,” he says. And the problem is “they don’t know what they are.”

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He blames their boomer parents. “They didn’t teach their kids responsibility,” says Brewin, who delivered newspapers at 13, juggled after-school jobs through high school and waited tables during college. “A lot of these kids are 25 and they’ve never held a job. It’s no wonder a lot of them are still living at home.”

How bad is the rift between baby boomers and Gen-Xers? It depends whom you ask. But the perception of such a divide has at the very least spawned a new profession: the Gen-X consultant.

These experts--several of whom are boomers--advise mostly high-tech and media companies on how to get workers and management of all ages communicating and collaborating.

Quite a few of them make the same observations about Xers: They are children of divorce and upheaval. They crave feedback and autonomy. And they took their first steps on the information highway sometime around age 7.

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Bruce Tulgan, author of “Managing Generation X” (Merritt), is a sort of Gen-X interpreter. He helps companies understand his generation’s innermost yearnings. Tulgan is talking about the workplace, not the bedroom, when he says Xers crave “immediate gratification,” “may appear disloyal” and prefer “not to be held on a tight leash.”

Managers who learn how to satisfy the desires of their twentysomething employees, suggests Tulgan, will have found the key to managing not only Xers but the worker of the future. “We want to make a meaningful contribution, Tulgan says. “I like having responsibility and being in charge of my own destiny.”

His advice to managers:

* Set clear deadlines for tangible results.

* Give the employees freedom to manage their own time and work; avoid micro-managing.

* Support their quest to learn and improve their skills. They see their resumes--not the system--as their ticket to job security.

* Celebrate successes.

You might expect the 31-year-old author of the soon-to-be-published book “Get It Together by Thirty and Be Set for the Rest of Your Life” (Amacom Books) to sport a grunge look with pinstripes. But Richard Thau loathes dressing up. In fact, dressing down at work has been one of his top priorities. “I hate wearing ties,” says Thau, who also hates being told he must work fixed hours.

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Imagine then how annoying it was for Thau when he was told to wear a tie and sport coat to the office at his first several jobs, even though his only contact with the public was via the telephone.

But that wasn’t the only affront to Thau’s sensibilities. His boomer boss expected him to shave every day. All this for a job where his annual salary of $16,000 was slightly less than his yearly tuition at the private East Coast college where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in American history.

“None of my boomer bosses ever made any effort to understand me,” says Thau, who now happily shows up to work in jeans and T-shirts and puts in his 40 hours each week when it suits him as the executive director of Third Millennium, a New York-based Generation X advocacy group.

On the West Coast, consultants like Sue Bohle, president of her own L.A. public relations firm, advise clients on how to avoid such rifts by helping them figure out how to retain and develop their Gen-X staff.

“Gen-Xers want a lot more independence than I did at their age,” says Bohle, 53, whose clients are mostly media and software companies. “I advise managers to break up projects into little pieces so that everyone can own something.”

But even Bohle has lost some of her best twentysomething employees. “When I have a talented Gen-Xer, I have to constantly remember to give them challenges and enough autonomy if I want to hold on to them,” she says. Several of her former staff members have since opened their own PR firms.

Now she gives her employees a performance review every six months. Not to police their work, she says. “They demand it, because Xers crave feedback and want to know where they stand and what they need to do to move up the ladder.”

Barbara Fagan, a 47-year-old business consultant to high-tech firms, has come to the same conclusion. " If you don’t give Gen-Xers direction or a role to play, they’ll go and design their own little spaceship.

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“When I started working, if the boss walked by my desk, I made sure my head was down and that I looked busy,” says Fagan, who runs her consulting business from her Sonoma County home. “I didn’t spend my time wondering what the boss was doing.”

Many Xers, Fagan says, take a different tack. She’s heard employees ask their bosses, “What are you doing to run this company effectively?”

Her approach is to get both boomers and Gen-Xers focusing on what the company as a whole needs to accomplish.

Paul Hatch, a 29-year-old singer-songwriter working as a clerk at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, has a different theory. He thinks who gets along with whom at work has little to do with age and everything to do with job status.

“It’s the position you hold that determines your outlook,” he says. “You give someone the power to hire and fire and suddenly they adopt this ‘boss mentality’ and these old values and beliefs.”

Gali Kronenberg is a regular contributor to The Times who was born in 1959.


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