My daily commute from my home in New Jersey to New York City guarantees me the pleasure of crossing the Hudson River twice a day. My return typically brings me through the Lincoln Tunnel, where I jockey for position with countless other motorists as we squeeze through the narrow tubes.
Feeding into the Tunnel is a complex set of passageways that originate from a relatively large number of points within Manhattan. In order to maintain some semblance of order, cones, double white lines, police cars and exorbitant fines are used to keep motorists from switching lanes. For all intents and purposes, once you enter a pathway to the tunnel, you are in that lane until you emerge in the Garden State.
The route that I typically take positions me in one tube on the right side of two-lane, same-directional traffic. My lane feeds partially from nearby Port authority, which means that buses are often part of the westbound chain of vehicles. Naturally, the buses slow down traffic significantly.
Perhaps I wouldn't be bothered by this as much if I didn't see other cars whizzing past me each evening. The sight of neighboring vehicles traveling at near-double speeds makes me feel trapped, not able to get past the cars in front while being passed by others in a lane that I cannot transfer into. I feel stuck and helpless, and have to actively remind myself that it only means getting home 3-5 minutes later as a result.
I sense that in many ways my tunnel experience is akin to something felt by millions of Gen-Xers (46 million Americans born between 1965 and 1978) in the workplace. In front of them are Baby Boomers, many of whom would have already retired had their nest eggs not been shattered by market collapses and broad layoffs. Encroaching quickly on their side are large numbers of Millennials (70 million to be precise), who are riding the coattails of innovation and technological savviness (not to mention their reputation for immature if not petulant demands) to leadership positions of their own. Caught in the middle are the middle-aged, hard working men and women who possess neither the seniority nor the perceived expertise of the elder coworkers, nor do they possess, in the aggregate, the 21st century capacity, innovation and energy of their younger colleagues. For them, the light at the end of the executive tunnel seems dimmer and farther than ever.
A 2012 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada suggests that Gen X is being "squeezed at both ends," by younger workers who are aggressively trying to move up the ranks at work and by Boomers who are staying in senior roles longer due to delayed retirement. Additionally, the report suggests that management efforts may be focused on the business of Baby Boomer retirement and the influx of Gen Y employees, thereby causing the "values and desires of their largest, yet often overlooked demographic of employees -- Generation X," to be neglected.
What can Gen-Xers do to advance in the workplace and make their dreams of promotion and security a reality? How can avoid the squeeze and realize their own leadership aspirations?
Gen-Xers can continue to be patient. While the Baby Boomers may have overstayed their welcome, the older end of the group will not be around for that much longer, particularly if the economy continues to rebound. Figures indicate that Gen-X's time will come soon.
Patience, however, is not enough, especially with the Millennials right on their heels. Gen-Xers need to go out of character and defy the conventional script. They need to find ways to strike the right balance between "old time" values of reliability, industriousness and fidelity and contemporary skills such as social networking, corporate dexterity and self-promotion. They need to learn and become comfortable with "21st century" business and social skills and be nimble enough in their thinking so as to be ready for the next wave of change and opportunity. If they can, their experience, maturity and fealty will pay meaningful dividends.
Gen-Xers may also need to become their own squeaky wheel, prepared to assert themselves and their needs to the decision makers. We have already seen meaningful evidence of bosses cowing to Millennial demands, as the latter use strong-handed techniques (it's either my way or the highway) and feed off of growing concerns (where will we find decent workers amongst these many brats?) in to get their way and grab hold of leadership opportunities. Gen-Xers need to be able to do the same, letting their superiors know that they are no longer prepared to sit quietly by, biding their time until opportunity knocks. They want opportunities now, the kind that will translate into much more a few years hence.
Squeezing is not always a bad thing, especially when it helps us to make lemonade out of lemons. For Gen-Xers, the squeeze may be the push that we need to make ourselves that much more qualified and efficacious in leading 21st century change.