We label the population born between 1964 and 1981 as Gen X. The generation following the Baby Boomers wasn’t as big as it might’ve been. The contraceptive pill was introduced to Australia in 1961, which pushed birth rates from 3.15 in 1964 down to 1.94 in 1981. At the same time, migration intake during the 1970s was about half of what it used to be in the 1960s.
This small generation came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. It was only in 1975 that no-fault divorce was introduced in Australia. This resulted in the crude divorce rate shooting up fourfold during 1976 and then settling at a new normal that was two-and-a-half times higher than before the legal changes. Colour TV came to Australia in 1975 and Gen X had constant access to US culture through Hollywood movies and TV shows, as well as the newly introduced US fast food restaurants. Gen X tapped into a US-centric but global view of the world.
Gen Xers were not only the first generation where a sizeable number of kids lived through their parents’ divorces but also the first generation whose moms joined the workforce at high rates. Gen X saw advances in gender equality in action in their own homes. Gen X was the first generation that was sent into day care at high rates too. All this led to Gen X becoming an independently minded generation – they were even labelled as the latch-key generation.
Their parents forewent family time for family income, and in some cases got divorced too. Observing this led to Gen X being determined to put family happiness before family income once they grew up. While the Baby Boomer lived to work, Gen Xers worked to live. Sure, a fulfilling career and tons of money still sound appealing, but time with the family has an even better ring to it.
This obsession goes so far that we see a dip in entrepreneurial energy among Gen X males. Running your business almost guarantees that you have less time available for your family. That’s a trade-off Gen X men weren’t willing to make.
Xers are a bit cynical, sarcastic and sceptical in their worldview and almost collectively dislike authorities and hierarchies. This generational cynicism was famously captured by Friends’ Chandler Bing (actor Matthew Perry was born in 1969).
This collective cynicism forged them into a very practical generation. Xers don’t really connect to the high-mindedness of the two generations they are sandwiched between. Gen Xers research to death every feature of every leaf blower they purchase. When selling to them (goods and ideas alike) use facts, highlight product features, but don’t moralise.
Gen X is also labelled as the forgotten generation. We don’t talk about them much because they are a small generation, the unassuming middle child, with a larger older sibling (Baby Boomers) and a larger younger sibling (Millennials). From 2020 to 2030 the share of the population that are Xers falls from 23 per cent to 20 per cent. In the workforce we will see Xers fall from 32 per cent to 25 per cent.
Clearly this small generation becomes even less influential over the coming decade? Well, not so fast.
We must not underestimate the influence of Gen X. In many aspects the 2020s will predominantly be shaped by Xers. There is a level of seniority built into many leadership positions. You become Prime Minister at 52 – Scott Morrison was born in 1968 – and the average CEO in Australia is 54. That’s Gen X’s territory during the whole of the 2020s.
All premiers (okay, almost all premiers) and the PM are already Xers. This means that the values of Gen X, their pet projects if you will, are amplified during the Gen X leadership decade. This observation alone makes me very optimistic about our efforts to close the gender pay gap (different to the gender income gap, but that’s a topic for another column).
Leaders in business will also push for better work-life balance. It’s no coincidence that Xers took to the lockdowns’ working-from-home revolution with ease.
Due to their position in the lifecycle, many Gen Xers are currently financially overstretched. Their kids are still financially dependent on them, the mortgage isn’t paid off yet. Sure, they already have seen a few promotions at work and enjoy high incomes, but the expenses just keeping coming quite mercilessly in your 40s and 50s. So, they are financially somewhat vulnerable.
The younger half of the generation only started their careers after superannuation was introduced. Let’s say you were born in 1970 and started work straight after university, you should have a sizeable super balance to retire with.
The older Gen Xers already have a few colleagues so young they could easily be their kids. How should Gen Z (born 2000-2017) and young Millennials (1982-1999) deal with their Xer bosses? Always push the facts. Make your case in a coherent, structured, and logical way – don’t moralise.
Australia lucked out by having a quiet and pragmatic generation at the steering wheel during COVID and the post-COVID economic recovery.