Amidst the steady stream of chatter about emancipated Gen Y girls and power-wielding baby boomer-istas, it appears we've forgotten altogether about the cohort of women in-between. Cast aside are the experiences of women ages 33 to 46, members of an ever increasingly 'lost' generation. Jeff Gordinier, author of the book "X Saves the World," put in best when he said, "We hear plenty about people in their teens and twenties, and even more about people in their fifties, but the stodgy old species known as the thirtysomething has been shuttled off, like Molly Ringwald herself, to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers."
Among other monikers, Gen X women have been tagged as empowered, skeptical and tech-savvy -- and have also been a driving force behind the work/life balance movement in the US workplace. Interestingly, Gen X women -- more than any other group -- are poised to change women's dismal representation in leadership ranks. In considerable numbers, they represent middle management today, not too green to be accused of inexperience and not too old to be seen as overly expensive in the eyes of employers. They are educated, equipped, and hungry for responsibility, yet according to a recent study -- they are suffering.
The study, carried out by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett PhD, founder and president of the Center for Work Life Policy, showed that Gen Xers face extremity both on the job and at home. Pressure to "clear a high bar on both the career and family fronts" leaves many Xers increasingly exhausted and guilt-ridden -- as family members and professionals. The study found that 70 percent of those identified as having extreme jobs say that their work undermines their health and well-being, prompting insomnia, high anxiety and stress-induced illness.
Perhaps due to this stress or in an effort to avoid it, many X women don't feel that they need motherhood to complete them. In fact, according to the study, 43 percent of Gen X women do not have children at all, a number that climbs to 53 percent for Asian American women. Commented one child-free blogger on the subject, "Husband + House + Career + Kids = Have it All. I have three of those things and I know for certain that if I had the fourth, I'd have way less." Gen X women have their reasons for feeling apprehensive about motherhood. Authors Sari Harrar and Rita DeMaria for instance, cite that marriage does more to promote life satisfaction than money, sex, or even children -- and that nearly 90 percent of couples experience a decrease in marital satisfaction after the birth of their first child. Even more compelling, Kate Sayre and Michael J. Silverstein, co-authors of the book "Women Want More," found that women's happiness -- when correlated to age -- is v-shaped. Meaning, women are happiest between the ages of 18-25 and after age 50, when, for many, kids are not in the picture.
Childless or not, Gen X women face the twin forces of Gen Yers competing for promotions and plum assignments and boomers who aren't yet ready to leave their posts for retirement. Said 38-year-old Sarah Lane of Laytonsville, MD, "Even if an Xer doesn't want to have children, a boomer boss might assume otherwise and find a younger woman to be a better hire because she isn't yet saddled with such concerns." Even so, said Lane, there may some advantages to being in the middle group. "As Xers we can gain leverage by positioning ourselves as a bridge between the digital divide -- boomers who are just starting to use smart phones and the Yers who can't put them down." Working more hours than ever before and with their loveless position in the workplace, Gen X women's pursuit to get their due has given the term "midlife crisis" new meaning.
Still, not all workplaces are in the stone ages when it comes to engaging X women. Said Jennifer Steinmann, chief talent officer at Deloitte LLP, "We recognize that our Gen X professional -- women and men -- need to grow as leaders while effectively fitting work and life together. We provide virtual work practices, paid sabbaticals, targeted leadership development programs and Mass Career Customization to foster an environment for this generation to thrive." Similarly at IBM, women can arrange their own flexible schedules and compress their workweeks. Even more meaningful may be the support offered including networking groups for telecommuters, free seminars on work life balance, company sponsored backup childcare as well as free eldercare assistance. Companies savvy enough to understand the struggles and talents of these primetime women have a chance at engaging and keeping them.
As Gen-X women hit their forties, they're changing the face of what it means to be middle-aged. They are accomplished, done the "proving myself" years, and somehow embody both empowered and disempowered at the same time. Yes, many Gen X women heard the "You Can Do it All" message as girls. But while that mandate may have meant as an encouraging prompt, more often than not, it's carried around like a weighty responsibility.
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