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The Undetected Influence of Generation X

Overshadowed by the bigger boomer cohort, here's to the X factor

By Anna Sofia Martin

Look around. There’s probably a Gen X’er (born between 1965 to 1981), close to you. Not that you noticed. They’re normally known as the slackers, the latchkey kids, the middle-child generation. Caught between boomers and younger Millennials, Generation X is mainly known for being neglected and ignored.

Generation X
Credit: Getty Images

But a funny thing happened on their way to age 50: Gen X became the undetected influencers of its younger and older generations. What they lack in numbers — just 66 million to boomers’ 75 million — they make up with a stellar engine that has quietly been revving over the years.

Disappointed in big institutions from government to organized religion to marketing and advertising, Gen X had its nihilistic, self-deprecating phase. Nevermind was Nirvana’s biggest album. “We’re not worthy,” said Wayne and Garth in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World. And over time, people believed them.

As a result, too many Americans don’t know who they are and this generation continues to be as mysterious as the “X” cipher in their moniker. Even many X’ers don’t identify with their generational cohort: just 41 percent call themselves “Gen X.”

Who’s the Boss? Gen X

But here’s the thing: For a small, and supposedly lost, generation, Gen X’ers have found their way to positions of power.

At work, X’ers are taking management roles and mentoring their younger coworkers. And they’re likely doing it under the radar. If they’re moving mountains, they’re not always broadcasting it. Gen X’ers, incidentally, are among the most highly educated generation in the U.S.: 35 percent have college degrees vs. 19 percent of Millennials.

And X’ers like Elon Musk (Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Solar City) have created innovative startups whose explicit aim was to make the world a better place. Many others in his cohort followed in Musk’s footsteps: a whopping 55 percent of startup founders are part of Gen X.

The memory of growing up in a computer-free world is still fresh to Gen X’ers, who built the bridge from analog to digital. Consequently, they’re savvy in the tech sphere, much like Millennial “digital natives.” And they know how to use social media with ease: 81 percent of Gen X is on Facebook and 5.9 million have Snapchat accounts. But they engage with their online personas less for selfie-centered promotion and more to keep track of the world — and reach their Millennial kids (on Snapchat).

The Glue of the Modern Family


You may be living with a Gen X’er, as many Americans are. More than 56 million Americans now live in multigenerational homes. This reflects the Modern Family trend. In 2016, our notions of family are changing beyond the traditional nuclear family. Everyone from step-relatives to same-sex couples and parents and grandparents may be under one roof, or in close proximity. At the epicenter are Gen X’er parents and siblings, caring for family members on both sides of the generational divide.

Kids used to flee the nest, but now they’re also coming back home — in droves— to their Gen X parents. Adults in their 20s and 30s are crashing with their parents at record or near-record levels. Instead of downsizing as they age, some Gen X’ers are upsizing to accommodate their extended families.

Developments designed specifically to accommodate many generations under one roof, such as those built in Spanaway, Wash., are emerging as a new urban landscape where Gen X’ers will live along with their young and grown children, plus parents and even grandparents.

At the same time, some X’ers are supporting their boomer parents, both financially and with a shoulder to lean on. According to Pew, 48 percent of X’ers say they expect to provide primary care for their aging parents; 34 percent say their boomer parents depend on them for emotional support.

The Power to Spend (But Not to Save)

It used to be a given that one generation would fare better financially than the previous one, but Gen X broke that cycle.

Although they have purchasing power (31 percent of U.S. income, but just 25 percent of the population), they have less wealth than their parents did at their age, 25 years ago. This is partly due to lingering college debts. Also: the cost of caring for their parents and kids.

Masters of self-deprecation, Gen X’ers love to balk at attention, and even hide from it. But they quietly have become residents of the C-suite, your friends, moneymakers and spenders. Ignore them at your peril.
(Find out more about Gen X at 50, sparks & honey Culture Forecast.)

Anna Sofia Martin is a senior writer at sparks & honey, an agency that helps brands and organizations radically improve performance by understanding culture. She is the primary author of Gen X at 50, Rebranding Marijuana, Gen Z 2025 and other Culture Forecasts by sparks & honey. Read More
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