Twentysomething: The rising rift between gen X and gen Y


Rebecca Thorman is 24 years old. I met her when I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and spoke at an event she put together. I’ve been reading her blog, Modite, ever since.

By Rebecca Thorman As the workplace weather changes, Generation X isn’t happy to see Generation Y as the rainbow in their persistent rainstorm.

Both generations have similarities, sure. Technological savvy and the willingness to rebel against boomer norms brought us together for a short time. But as more of Gen Y enters the workplace, Gen X is becoming increasingly marginalized, and the fundamental differences of how we operate are now dividing us along fierce lines:

1. Different job markets
Generation Y is a demographic powerhouse entering into our choice of jobs. With the world conspiring in our favor, we’ve already pushed the limits of the foundation Generation X laid.

Generation X tried to change the status quo while entering into one of the worst job markets since the Great Depression. They scorned the good ole boys, but had to play by their rules anyway, while millenials are able to create our own rules.

The fact that Gen Xers worked hard with little success beyond casual Fridays means that they are “only mentioned to be polite” in generational discussions. This is aggravated by Generation Y’s readiness to assume all the leadership positions when the Boomer generation retires. Gen X can’t seem to win and Gen Y reaps the rewards.

2. Cynicism vs. Idealism
Since the Gen Xers weren’t able to create the workplace change they desired, it’s no wonder that I get the feeling that Generation X is inherently skeptical of who I am. They’re weary of how easy success comes to me, of my desire to bring them into the mix, and of my idealism.

Unlike our older co-workers, Generation Y doesn’t operate out of fear or distrust, but the possibility of what can be done. I realize that Generation Y is new to the workplace. To Gen X, I just don’t get how the world works. And while it’s quite possible that we won’t change the world like we anticipate, why shoot for just the possible? Idealism is what changes the world.

3. You vs. Us
The Gen X focus on distrust makes them solitary workers, preferring to rely solely on their selves to see a project through, while Generation Y tends to want to support and work together. A Gen Xer is often found at the office, squeezing by on their flextime, and blocking out the world with their iPod.

Generation X is no doubt feeling like a stepping stone generation, and many are, in fact, choosing to align themselves with Generation Y rather than fade into the background. The founder of MySpace went so far as to lie about his age.

I say the more the merrier. There is strength and value to realism, and there is strength and value to optimism. That’s why we have to work together. What can I say? I’m a team player.

Rebecca Thorman blogs at Modite.

165 replies
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  1. Brian Tingley
    Brian Tingley says:

    The writer has an immensely inflated opinion of her generation. Does she think that Gen Y’ers were the only ones to be idealistic? Are they the only ones to want to balance work and career? Every generation has those goals, and in their own way, accomplished them. On one hand, she talks about how inclusive her generation is, but on the other hand she writes off Gen X and Boomers as people who “can’t seem to win”.

    It was the victories of the preceding generations that enabled the privileges Gen Y enjoys today. The only thing we failed to teach Gen Y, apparently, was manners.

    And just because you can download music to an I-Pod and pictures of your Spring Break experience to your Facebook site, doesn’t make you a technological genius. But you’ll learn that eventually.

    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      Writer is full of crap. All youth is idealistic … What is important are the values that guide their pursuits and the nature of those pursuits, (refer to URL attached for a good general characterization of Gen Y).

    • heather
      heather says:

      I agree completely. This generation Y-er is severely delusional. I teach this generation (the one that is committing friends of mine to retire or commit suicide due to parents who have to castigate employers who give them a less-than-perfect-review! God forbid they should work for something.) I also have many friends at Citibank. They are practically laughing at the prospect of hiring this generation, unless they act otherwise. They are unemployable, according to many contacts.
      Listen, I am teaching them, and while I cannot completely generalize, the majority are spoiled and immensely undereducated, and feeling overentitled, and it is sad. How would you feel about turning over your next generation to tailed primates?
      This is my experience from a gen-x-er from CA, who had to pay her way through many things in life due to incredibly selfish parents (who actually remind me of the y peeps, in fact.) What happened, folks? Why did you handicap your children like this? What’s wrong with you Boomers? Why on earth would you create this monstrosity? Did you really think that it was a good idea to call the boss of your 20-something to argue about his review????

      • Kim
        Kim says:

        Hi Heather,
        Here’s my take on it: with the rise of ‘self-esteem’ building efforts that came on in the late 60’s and really took off through the 70-90’s, we’ve created generation(s) of Narcissists. We now are learning that to constantly tell a child they are “great!” for doing nothing, to give everyone a ribbon for losing or winning, to never discipline them for fear of ‘hurting their feelings’ does not raise their self-esteem but creates a Monster of Entitlement. _Nurture Shock_ is a great place to start, a recent book that covers this issue and more.


    • JJ
      JJ says:

      I rather enjoy reading the many weak defenses generation y offers about why they are not what we believe around the net. They all seem to read the same way, “me, me, me, me,” and let’s not forget, “it’s your fault.”

  2. Rick
    Rick says:

    I’ve worked with a variety of people from each “generation” and found the same spectrum of personalities. Gen X, Gen Y, Boomers: I’ve met team players, assholes, cynics, optimists, idealists. The generation didn’t matter — what’s more, I haven’t seen any of these personalities in overwhelming numbers from a particular generation.

    Here’s the thing with all of these generation gaps (which is just a culture gap by a different name), they fade with time. I see more-and-more 50-year-olds texting, more people becoming comfortable with open, online identities. It’s a shift in our culture that open technology is empowering; some Gen Xers and Yers capitalized on these first, but they did not cause the evolution. (Notice I did say “some” as I know plenty of people in the Gen Y group who don’t own a cell phone and rarely use the Internet except for email.) Rather, they were harbingers of the change.

    PS I’m not sure Gen X had much to do with casual Friday. Rather, businesses needed more ways to be competitive. And if all you get is a casual Friday where you work, I’m sorry. I’ve never had to wear anything more than jeans and a decent shirt (somtimes not so decent) no matter where I’ve worked — ranging from a small startup to a company with over 350,000 people. (And I’m a business manager.)

    PPS I think the whole MySpace thing had more to do with the founder trying to associate himself with the target demographic as closely as possible — rather than him trying to avoid being a “stepping stone”. It was a business decision. Had he targeted Boomers, he might have tried to be older. Had he targeted people in their 30’s, he would have been honest about his age. Using it as an argument that Gen X is a stepping stone generation is weak.

    • heather
      heather says:

      Just FYI, from a generation X-er who had absolutely nothing to do with casual Fridays…What an ambiguous mess, leading to some of the most undigignified fashion disasters I’ve ever seen! I’m with you!

  3. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    “….while Generation Y tends to want to support and work together. A Gen Xer is often found at the office, squeezing by on their flextime, and blocking out the world with their iPod.”

    Is it fair to ask for some examples to support this broad claim?


    Hi Recruiting Animal. Here is an article that I think does a good job of describing where Generation X is coming from. Thank you for your comment! -Rebecca

  4. Robert
    Robert says:

    I don’t think “look at the old, cranky idiots, while we are young, wonderful, and geniuses” is really quite the demonstration of team work that she thinks it is. “You vs. Us” is a wonderfully ironic heading for talking about togetherness.

    I’m pretty sure if you’re making a list of illogical argument types, rampant stereotyping is going to be up there somewhere, too.

  5. Webomatica
    Webomatica says:

    Sounds great – let’s raise the retirement age to 79 and the payroll tax for everyone under 30. Got to shore up social security and medicare to keep the Baby Boomers from bankrupting it. Thanks for being a team player!

  6. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    To be honest, I’m not even sure that Gen X and Gen Y are really different generations. After all, the Baby Boomer generation spans about 20 years.

    I think all this talk of “generations” as if they actually mean something is frankly a little lazy and, on this blog, repetitive. I was glad when Ryan left because I hoped that Penelope was going to do without a Twenty-Something post. No such luck.

    Since when does Twenty-Something mean early twenties? The posts never have much relevance for people in their late twenties, they tend to be geared for college graduates. Why not just call it “Early Twenty-Something”? Okay so this new girl is 24, which is more like it, but still she is talking as if 30 is _really old_. Guess what? It’s not and someone who is 25 has a lot more in common with someone who is 30 that someone who is 20.

    My personal view of generations is that someone about seven years older or seven years younger belongs to the same generation as me, though they may not belong to the same generation as each other. That’s logical because they would have gone to school at the same time as me, grown up with the same cultural references, possibly or possibly not have parents the same age. A definition that says someone two years younger than me belongs to a different generation because of some arbitrary cut-off line is clearly nonsense.

    I’m 31 so I guess I about scrape into Gen X. But only just. When I left school Gen X ended for people born in 1974; by the time I was in my early 20s the definition was widened up until year of birth 1978. I’ve no idea what it is now. I’ve got friends who are older and friends who are younger. I certainly don’t feel that a 28 year old and a 33 year old belong to different generations in any way.

    The early 90s recession only lasted about three or four years. Some of my generation graduated into this market, others like me graduated in the mid 90s right before the longest boom we have seen for years, and many of my peers made a fortune in the dotcom boom. We do not belong to different generations as a result – the things that bind us go far beyond that.

    I don’t feel “marginalised” at work by younger workers. I feel my career is going just fine and my experience is respected and valued at pretty much the right level. I’m not going to be made editor of the New York Times tomorrow, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility (though admittedly unlikely). Nor am I still making the coffee.

    I am in the UK, not the US, but I certainly haven’t noticed any evidence of younger workers holding any more power than they ever have, or being able to change corporate practices any more than preceding generations. Age seems mostly irrelevant in the workplace as far as my experience goes – experience, talent and attitude are what counts. One of those is potentially but not wholly linked to age, the other two have nothing to do with it.

    What’s all this about vast numbers of Gen Y and being outnumbered? Are there more people in their twenties in the US than in their thirties? I would be interested to see the figures if that’s the case and I would be sceptical if that were true in other countries where the birth rate is much lower.

    Meawhile, America is probably about to plunge into a full-blown recession so I’m not sure the rosy job market will hold much longer. Bad news for all of us, no matter what “generation” we supposedly slot into. People will either lose their jobs or wages will stagnate.

  7. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    PS I suspect this blog, and the 20-Something series in particular, tends to talk about “generations” because it allows for grandiose statements that can’t be disproven until years later. (It’s impossible to define a generation until they have been around a while – it’s a job for historians rather than sociologists. It’s meaningful to talk about late Victorians or WW2 veterans or baby boomers, beyond that it gets murky).

    In actual fact, what we are really talking about is “age” (or “life stage”). Class, race, nationality, educational level, gender and so on have a huge impact on people’s careers and life experiences. Age has very little. Why? Because age is the one thing that changes fairly automatically as you go through life whereas most others are either fixed or more difficult to change.

  8. jeff
    jeff says:

    I would agree with Brian a bit in saying that gen x enabled the next generation to be bolder. I think generation x removed many of the traditional barriers to success. The next generation never saw the barrier and were not slowed down by it. This has allowed the giant leaps and bounds in technology an innovation we see today.

    Generation x was a label provided by baby boomers as disdain for the generation. They didn’t believe in anything. The fight between the two generations has allowed Gen Y to do more.


    Hi Jeff. I agree with you and Brian, and appreciate your thoughtful comments. The foundation that previous generations have laid certainly make it easier for me, and I am grateful for that. Generation X has done a significant amount of work in changing the workplace, work that makes me happy to enter it, and continue to make change. Thank you again. -Rebecca

  9. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    PPS Sorry if I sounded excessively grumpy. I’m just a little sick of the “generational debate”. I think things are much more subtle than that.

    The real conflict will happen when we all have to start paying for baby boomers’ retirement (at least in countries that have a state welfare system) even though they all own million dollar homes and we can’t afford a house.

  10. Eliza Amos
    Eliza Amos says:

    I am a Gen X-er who does not take credit for casual Fridays, but rather works every day from home–fitting the aforementioned solitary worker profile.

    I DO think there’s a vast difference between Gen X and Gen Y, and it’s not all flattering to Gen Y. The Utne Reader has a fantastic (and I think pretty fair) article about it this month:

    “The Kids in the Corner Office: Are they Worth All the Coddling?”

  11. Lola
    Lola says:

    Where is this so called great job market for new graduates? All this Gen X and Gen Y talk is nonsense, its too soon to define either generation. Gen Y just got out of their training bras but we are supposed to believe they have some sort of collective world view? I’d really love to see some blogs focused on late twenties or early thirties. That seems to be the age gap between what Penelope blogs about and what the guest bloggers discuss.

  12. Joselle Palacios
    Joselle Palacios says:

    Oy. There’s definitely something to be gleaned from discussing generalizations. That’s why I come back to this blog! I know that Penelope’s recent post on community building in the 21st century garnered criticism for its generalizations but there were actually insights and tips in that post. Penelope mentioned that seeing how we’re how part of something larger–like a generation–helps us to see how to make our way in that bigger picture. But I don’t see where posts like this one gets us. As other commenters have remarked, where’s the proof? Linking to your own blog doesn’t really cut it.

    Beyond that, so what? How does this help even a 20-something person just embarking on their career path?

    I’m quite inclined to agree with Caitlin when she asks what the big difference between Gen X and Gen Y is? And how does highlighting this difference, espeically when placing Gen X in such a negative light, offer any insight beyond stating that there is a difference?

    I just don’t see evidence of a generational rift. Sorry to be cynical (must be the 50% Gen X in me, since at 27 I’m too young to be an X’er and too old to be a millenial), but all this rift talk sounds like a ploy to generate a controversy that doesn’t exist.

    I’d love a 20-something column that is personal, documents someone struggling and having fun with facing their career and themselves as they grow. That would be truly fresh and worth the time given to this column.


    Hi Joselle. Your comment really made me think, and I appreciate that. I think the main difference between the two generations is not how we act, but the motivations for those actions. We think differently as a result of the job markets we have entered and our experiences in them. I wanted to write this column because I have seen those differences in my work life. I made some observations internally, researched them, and found many of my ideas to ring true. By knowing what Gen X has gone through, and how they think differently than me is helpful to understanding how I can work with them better. I think it’s great that you don’t see a rift – you must be doing something right! :) In fact, “cuspers” as you are often called – on the cusp of both Gen Y and Gen X typically have an easier time dealing with both generations and have advanced communications skills with both. Thanks again! – Rebecca

  13. a girl
    a girl says:

    You know Penelope, I typically enjoy most of your columns, I think you are a realist. But indulging this child’s narcissistic, delusional rantings really kind of turns me off. Much more of this drivel and I’m going to unsubscribe. Yes, I’m open to hearing about how college kids see the world. But to lay claims about my entire generation based on a sample size of one? Please. When this child grows up and gets some education about statistics and sample sizes, perhaps I’ll be interested in what she has to say.

  14. Scott Williamson
    Scott Williamson says:

    I think we’re putting way too much emphasis on labeling generations. It just makes it too easy to put people in categories, regardless of their strengths or weaknesses. I’ve seen greatness and mediocrity in the Boomer, Gen X, and Gen Y.

    Overall, I think the Boomers deserve much more credit than they are getting, they accomplished much. They’re not perfect, but give them some credit. It’s also a bit early to write off Gen X as they are just now getting their shot at leadership, let’s wait a few years. Gen Y has an amazing opportunity to be a great generation and I think they will get there, but again it’s going to take time.

    Lastly, I have great deal of respect for anyone who’s out there trying to lead, invent, or accomplish regardless of generation. Those are the people I follow. For the record I’d put Rebecca in that category. While we don’t always agree, but I always think she’s worth listening to.

    PS. Congrats Rebecca on the NY Times article!

  15. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I am an EARLY gen Y – probably even borderline Gen X based on the age chart. I have to agree that there may not be so much of a generational conflict but more of a cultural gap…stated in a comment above. Kids graduating from HS today were born with cell phones in their hand and cable modems on their computers. They are used to instant gratification…they never had the joy of watching a dos prompt write out line by line a directory of a folder…they never had the joy of dial up internet access from home and waiting ten hours to download a file. With that, I believe the same is expected in regards to a career…why wait. Why not make the money now, why not have the perfect job now? Again, generalizations here, but that’s my take.

  16. Alicia Anderson
    Alicia Anderson says:

    Guys, guess what? The only place where this raging debate about workplace differences between X and Y takes place is out here in cyberspace. In the real world where I work, it’s a nonissue. But I guess bloggers have to have something to write about.

  17. klein335
    klein335 says:

    And the same generational differences that have been in existence since the beginning of time are once again hashed out as being brand new.

    Penelope is the most age-obsessed blogger on the web today. The will always be a generation Y, X, and Boomer Generation, they will simply have different names. This whole issue is merely about ones attitudes and aptitudes at various ages in their lives.

  18. Joan Woodbrey
    Joan Woodbrey says:

    Well, I’ll start off by giving Rebecca some credit, considering she’s got all of us talking. Which may be the reason she wrote so brashly. Isn’t that the reason we are all reading these blogs anyway? However, I’m going to agree with Joselle and Caitlin on this one. Being a 26 year old woman doesn’t really put me in either one of those generations fully. I think maybe the real subject is the difference between the 40 somethings and the 20 somethings, and those differences may not have to do with age at all but rather experience.

  19. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    I have to second Alicia Anderson’s view.

    And I have to add an interesting conversation I had yesterday with my highly competent and professional personal trainer, who will be 22 in a few weeks. I had thought he was older because he is mature and very good at his job. I only found out his age when he asked me – a Gen x-er and his client – to be his Facebook friend.

    He says he does not want to typify his generation by being a “drunk”, a “casual sex seeker” and a “moper” staying with his parents. Indeed his family does not live in England, where he attended at their expense a very good public school (which in UK lingo means an expensive boarding school).

    He is keen to build a career in the fitness industry and is already on his way to build his own studio in one of the most expensive localities in London – where real estate prices rarely fall below £2000-5000 per sq. ft. or $4000-10,000 in the US currency. He can afford it because of his success in his chosen profession and not by picking needless semantic fights with the Gen-Xers, who enable his success by employing him.

    His competence is key – and a non-negotiable hygiene factor – while his age is not.

  20. Tim
    Tim says:


    I think the term “Generation X” came from
    Douglas Coupland’s book, Generation X, which was pretty much a bible for that generation.

    I would also contend that the Baby Boomers did more to lay the foundation for the changing workplace than X, though I’m not that X didn’t do their share. Each generation builds upon the previous ones.

  21. jeff
    jeff says:


    Very true, each generation builds on the previous. The baby boomer generation is responsible for breaking a majority of norms in the 1960s. Freedoms were created that generation x enjoyed. Generation X broke more norms in the 1990s, in which, Generation Y is enjoying.

    Generation X is just a non-term. There was no way to describe them so the “brand x” theme was created. (Douglas Copeland was a baby boomer by definition). It is even further intellectually lazy to call the next generation “generation y”. Who really comes up with this stuff? Funny how a fiction writer can define a generation.

  22. Colin Kingsbury
    Colin Kingsbury says:

    Let’s talk about Gen Y again after they’ve lived through a recession. I graduated college in 1998 and like many of today’s under-25s my friends and I largely did not recognize how good we had it. 2001-2003 taught some very harsh lessons, particularly for those who had caught the web-tech wave.

    I don’t mistrust the system or employers in any general or specific sense. But the facts here are very simple: when times get tough, companies will need to cut costs, and the only way to do so quickly in meaningful volumes is to go after payroll. No matter how much a company cares about a particular employee today, it does not mean they cannot be laid off tomorrow if the conditions dictate. At some point the goal changes from happiness to survival, and the change can come in 5 minutes.

    I’m happy the kids haven’t had to learn this yet because good times for the folks at the entry level mean good times for everyone above them. But until they’ve lived through the other side I don’t think any of these generalizations have much validity.

  23. Tim
    Tim says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I think there was an article in the Harvard Business Review on generations and work. They are already naming and branding future generations!

  24. JayDawg
    JayDawg says:

    “The fact that Gen Xers worked hard with little success beyond casual Fridays means that they are "only mentioned to be polite" in generational discussions.”

    Yeah, this whole “internet” thing we built isn’t a success yet. We developed an entire industry out of nothing, get back to us when you’ve done the same.

  25. Jeremy A.
    Jeremy A. says:

    Good article. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now (Well- since it was first syndicated on Yahoo, really.) and have now felt uncontrollably compelled to add my two cents into the fray. I am admittedly, on the very, very tail end of Gen X with about a month and a half to spare, according to that “recruitnik” fellow linked to above.

    What I am wondering is this: Are these events/conflicts/etc… between Gen X and Gen Y only going on in the office between those white collar/pedigree types? I only ask because my line of work is “in the trenches” in manufacturing and we simply don’t see this type of behavior. Although that’s not to say that we don’t have the occasional case of the “ME-ME-ME’s”. The way the article describes it, it sounds like the situation is one step this side of warfare.

    Although, I do have to admit that when I’m off on my own, I do like to strap on my ipod and block it all out once in a while. But I think that can be mostly attributed to an overwhelming disposition toward introversion. Normal speak: I’m a thinker, then a doer.

  26. pk
    pk says:

    You know, I tend to see the abuse PT takes in her yahoo comments and feel like people are being ridiculous and just rejecting what she’s saying. But in this case, I’m with “a girl” above, and abuse really is justified: this guest post is frankly embarrassing. There’s a painfully blunt juxtaposition between her claims of generational inclusiveness and her broad generalizations.

    We Gen Xers have had “little success”, “can’t seem to win”, are “weary of [Gen Y’s] success” (did she mean ‘wary’ or ‘weary’?), “operate out of fear or distrust”, “focus on distrust”, “can be found at the office squeezing by on [our] flextime”, and finally are “feeling like a stepping stone generation,” whatever that means.

    And then she sums it all up by saying she’s a “team player”. Rebecca, guess what? We don’t believe you. Why would anybody want to be on your team when you so deeply believe in your own superiority (even if it is rooted in generational terms)? Good teams require shared credibility and mutual respect, and your column evinces neither.

    Penelope – please find better twentysomething bloggers who at least show the slightest hint of perspective. I usually enjoy your blog, but this entry is only valuable as a form of education for the blogger herself. And that’s not something I’m really interested in partipating in.

    (For the record, I work for a 15-person consulting firm with people in all three of the generations mentioned, and really, nobody talks or cares about any ‘generational rifts’. Performance and teamwork are the keys to success.)

  27. Gladstone
    Gladstone says:

    When I was in my twenties, I thought there was something special about my generation; something that had never occurred before. Now that I’m in my 40’s, I realize that every “generation” thinks that. It’s part of being 24.

    Rebecca, how do you think you’ll be different from the current Gen-X’ers when you reach their age?


    Hi Gladstone. Great question! The simple answer is that I don’t know. There are things that I would like my generation to do, and maybe we won’t, but I would at least like to try. If we ended up like Generation X, that would be great. If we could continue to build upon the ideas and actions that Gen X has taken, and create further change, that would be great as well. I think Generation Y is special, certainly. But no more special than Gen X. We’re just different. I think the key is in working together so that we can build a better workplace for all of us. Thank you! – Rebecca

  28. Working Girl
    Working Girl says:

    It’s funny—all this talk of “Well, I’m an older X or I’m on the cusp or I’m a Y but feel like an X” just goes to show what an artificial construct “generation” is.

    And I venture to say that judging people by their age is a lot like judging them by sex, nationality, religion, and the color of their skin. Is this helpful? It seems to me more helpful to look for ways we are alike and can work, live, and be happy together.

    I am glad to see Rebecca’s self confidence, though. The twenties are a scary time in life. It’s hard to be an adult!

  29. Allen
    Allen says:

    While I admit that I enjoy reading some blogs, I’m beginning to think that bloggers are today’s version of yesterday’s political thinktanks. I’m sure you remember the rooms where the worlds problems were “solved” by sitting in a room and thinking about it rather than getting out and trying to solve it. Perhaps rather than reading another’s opinion they should get out in the world. Everyone, even the baby boomers, were idealistic pussy at 24. The real world taught you that in order to be in control you had to be the boss. Forget Casual Friday, starting your own company was the real accomplishment of baby boomers! Glad to see you’re learning from our experience.

  30. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    The only real difference between Gen X and Gen Y are lifestage issues. A lot of Gen Yers (and it seems like Rebecca, too) have the sense of bravado that most people have in their 20s. She’s right that we had a tough early career market and that made us very limber in terms of career.

    Gen Xers aren’t being marginalized, we’re running the show. That’s how we were able to lay the groundwork for Gen Y.

    Some advice: When writing about another generation, it’s best to ask yourself, “How would I feel if someone said that about me?” I.e. I’m not a Baby boomer, but I wouldn’t like being called self-focused. And I’m not part of Gen Y, but I would not want to be called clueless, either.


  31. Rob
    Rob says:

    "Cynicism vs. Idealism"

    Almost everyone, and certainly every "generation" starts from idealism in youth and shifts slowly into cynicism/realism/practicality as they get older. The Boomers/Hippies who were gonna change the world with peace, love and understanding joined up with Reagan in the 80's. Gen X'ers were gonna revolutionize the world with the internets, and it's mostly the same old-same old, just online now. Gen Y is the latest, and like most generations, seem to think they're the first ones to think this way.

    But hold on to that idealism as long as you can – it's good stuff.

  32. Sean
    Sean says:

    Um… I think using the phrase “Generation Y” is a pretty good indicator that you really don’t get it, but you want everyone to think you do. In the good old days studios would give sequels cool names like “Temple of Doom” and “Empire Strikes Back” but now it’s just the next number like “Ocean’s 12” and “Spiderman 3.” Same thing with “Gen, Y.” After “Baby Boomers,” “Beats,” and the and the aptly named “Generation X,” that’s the best you can come up with? Lemme guess what’s next… “Generation Z!”

    ps-I call trademarks on Generation Z.

  33. Big Dummy
    Big Dummy says:

    Thanks for making my life simpler by advocating the posting of this drivel Penelope. One less blog to read!

  34. sabrina
    sabrina says:

    Wow. Rebecca, if I’m skeptical of your desire to bring me into the mix, it’s only because I was already there… and if I’m weary of anything you have to say, it’s the relentless headpatting about how it’s okay, I still matter, I’m still relevant (if only I would be less of a Grumpy Gus!). If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not be on your team if you come to the table with the presupposition that I’m distrustful, solitary, and downtrodden. I’ll find your idealistic cohorts who maybe haven’t already judged me.

    I suspect if there is any true distinction between the work styles of the two generations thus far, it’s less due to iPods vs. Facebook, and more because one of us has been in the workplace for fifteen years and the other for three, and if nothing else that means that some of us have sat through a lot more useless meetings with idiots (of all ages) than others. Sheesh. Penelope, please, more insightful Brazen Careerism and less Nonsensical Stereotyping from guest authors?

  35. Barbara Saunders
    Barbara Saunders says:

    I think the “you vs. us” section is off-base. Around the era of the Great Depression, helping out your brother and being a rugged individualist were both avowed American values. Collaboration, cooperation, and support (i.e., working together) do not require togetherness per se. Nor does togetherness necessarily lead to productive collaboration.

    I would agree that Gen-Xers are both more distrustful and more solitary; however, to my observation, Gen-Y socializing is very largely just that, socializing, sometimes to the extent of interfering with the work.


    Hi Barbara. This is an interesting point. Certainly the fact that we may work solitary in a team may not impact productivity, but it does change how we can get things done in the same workplace. Thank you for bringing up a different perspective! -Rebecca

  36. David Harper
    David Harper says:

    Finally, an interesting and insightful post from this otherwise consistently mis-guided, and borderline dangerous, blog. (I am an male X, or as i like to call myself, an XYX)

    I think what Rebecca gets right is that climate shapes generational characteristics. That must be true: individuals vary (of course, individually we are quite special!) but, statistically, why would an entire generation (a large group) be substantively different from a nearby generation except for (i) environment or (ii) evolution? Generations don’t evole that rapidly, so there is no *unique* emergent, average generational characteristic; i.e., we had hopes, you have hopes. Instead, the world changes you. My great-great-grandparents came over of boats, cold and brave: that makes for a view. My parents and theirs, a real War (not a TV war) and economic scarcity: perspective ensued.

    This Gen Y has a set of attitudes that follows naturally from their circumstances which are *totally unprecedented*. The world have never been this flat, abundant, hyperconnected, hypercompetitive and hyperconcious – “idealism” is just as ripe for this time as was for earlier eras.

    So, Suzanne GenerationXpert, you are right that life stage is a difference, but it’s not the only key difference, the other one is the environment. And the environmental differences (across these generations) are significant.

  37. Other Jeff
    Other Jeff says:

    One thing that made me think twice were the comments about how Gen Y will pick up on Gen X’s work. That’s great… until you realize that Gen Y isn’t done yet. The above statement makes it sound like the baton has been passed, when both groups are still in the mix.

    I’m in Gen Y, I guess, as a 25-year-old, and I am starting to see that idealism doesn’t pay off. That’s not the way the business world works. I recently had a legitimate complaint about something at work, and when I brought it up, I felt like I was punished for complaining. Fair? No. But it still happened.

    I think that the next stumbling block for Gen Y will be to discover that you can “call-the-shots” your way out of a job. There is something to be said for respecting the powers that be; you may not like it, but that’s the way it is. And all of that teamwork and camaraderie? Directors don’t hire groups of people for one management position. Besides, it could be your individual hard work and good ideas that everyone in the group is getting credit for. Will this whole “Gen Y is awesome” buzz last? It might be empowering for now, but I really don’t think it will.


    Hi Jeff. There have been times when I have lost my idealism too in the “real workplace.” I think the key is to maintaining an idealistic outlook, while realizing what you can do realistically at the moment. This is where Gen X and Gen Y can greatly help each other. Thank you for bringing up a good point! -Rebecca

  38. Mark
    Mark says:

    I am 29 years old, so I feel that I am on the extreme edge of Generation ‘Y’ (although some naysayers consider me the tail of Gen ‘X’). I really think that there is a deep divide between people my age and younger and those who are older, and that includes how we approach the working world. Rebecca, you raised some good points, but I have a couple of others that you didn’t mention.

    For example, I really think that our generation “expects it all” very quickly. I once read a survey that as recently as 1999, the majority college grads weren’t expecting more than $30K to start. Nowadays, about a third expects more than $50K. Granted, there has been some inflation, but I don’t think inflation has increased nearly as much as grads’ aspirations. Meanwhile, I see more and more people who barely have their ink dry on their diplomas obtaining management-level positions, where they are possibly supervising people with more experience than they do in the working world (i.e. the Carter Duryea effect ala In Good Company).

    Another difference is that Gen ‘Yers’ seem to be more willing to work longer hours than their predecessors. Gen ‘X’ was the first generation to expect work-life balance, but many people in Gen ‘Y’, while claiming that they want the same, are willing to burn the midnight oil. Many are taking on extra tasks, or are possibly taking supplemental jobs to gain extra experience. I think it’s more of a desire to “prove oneself”…’Yers’ want to show the world that they are up to the task. I’m not saying ‘Xers’ are slackers, but I think they have more of a “work to live” rather than “live to work” attitude.

    Finally, Gen ‘Y’ seems to be more interested in working for larger, well established companies than ‘Xers’, who tended to be more interested in new, dynamic organizations that have not been around for too long. Since our careers started either right around the time or after the Enron/WorldCom scandals, and after the dot-com bust, we feel skeptical about many companies; whether they are unstable or deceptive. We want to work for organizations that have stood the test of time.

    I think that these differences are a good start…granted, ‘Yers’ have many characteristics similar to those of ‘Xers’, and there is no “one size fits all”, but I do sense that there are fundamental differences between the “typical” ‘Xer’ and ‘Yer’ these days.

  39. Eddie
    Eddie says:

    1. I've done the research, and the writing is on the wall for us Gen Xers. What you've neglected to add to your argument is that Gen Xers did change the status quo, although not as much as Gen Y will, but flexible work hours and telecommuting are ours. The important part about that is that a lot of us will be out flexing, spending important time with our young families, while you Gen Yers establish yourself in our absence.
    It's not our lack of success that leads us not to be mentioned, it's pure demographics. Boomers are larger than we are, Gen Y is larger. *shrugs*
    For us Gen Xers, we will stay focused on what's important to us: we are making up for our latchkey childhoods by intensifying our sense of family. We have great dedication to doing a good job, too, and we like opportunities for growth, even if it's not UP the corporate ladder. It’s personal growth, since that’s what’s available to us.
    2. The part that bothers me about this is that you are tagging a whole generation and telling them (us) that we're WRONG for being cynical, even when you've read the research, you know where it comes from, and still, you just won't accept us. Your generations is renowned for accepting all kinds of diversity, but you won't accept that we are different, and we can’t change into you. Please RESPECT it. Even if you don’t like it. In return, we will be working very hard to accept you and your idealism.
    3. The point of a team is NOT to have a bunch of identical idealists agreeing on something. It's about diversity coming together, managing differences, coming to compromises to accomplish a goal. Gen X individuals ARE team players, but we don't need a gang to accomplish EVERYTHING. We work great alone, too. Again, please respect our diversity.
    But off the record and out of the workplace, those of us who care about such things as generational identity, and are Gen X, know we are members of an elite, exclusive club. Membership is closed, no one else get in. We may be cynical, but we’re great writers, artists, musicians…and we love it. We love not being like you and not being like the Boomers.
    And, before you know it, Gen Z will be in the workforce, showing what “technological savvy” really is. It happens quickly.

  40. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    As a 40 year old Gen Xer, I am thankful to say I don’t share this cynical perspective of generational conflict. Optimistic Boomers, GenXers and GenYers will find common ground.

  41. Phaedrus
    Phaedrus says:

    If Rebecca is a representative of Gen-Y, us Gen-Xers have nothing to worry about. You come across as impatient, self-indulgent and ill-informed, and to narcissistic to see this in yourself. What I find especially ironic is that you dare to call us cynics and loners and you the idealists and team players, when all you seem to want to do is climb over us in pursuit of your own self-achievement and idolization.

    The only thing you have going for you is your sheer size and the fact that you are riding on the coattails of those of us in Gen-X who put in the long hours and hard time carving out a new niche and a radically different workplace culture.
    If anything, by measuring their success in terms of job title and compensation, Gen-Y is undoing much of the progress we made in terms of redefining achievement and seeking work-life balance.

    Gen-Y can only climb on our backs for so long – pretty soon you will need to fend for yourself, something that, given this sort of commentary, you seem extremely ill-equipped to do.


    Hi Phaedrus. I can appreciate your concern. I strongly believe that while Gen X thinks differently than me, they have certainly helped me get to the point where I am today. My older sister is Gen X and I’ve taken her advice all my life. Indeed, Penelope is Gen X and I read her blog daily. My Board President, the person that is a mentor to me and also who I am accountable to, is also Gen X. I want to be able to work together, and believe it is important to know where we come from and how we are different and similar to do that. Thank you for your comment! -Rebecca

  42. JR
    JR says:

    In the end, it’s really all about individual people…people who need acknowledgement of their desires and abilities, who need a vote in how their career and personal life unfold and who do their best when there’s a real connection with others.


  43. Allen
    Allen says:

    Sorry Eddie, Telecommuting and flex hours weren’t created by Gen X. Telecommutings earliest forms started in the 1980’s so by my math the decision would have been made by a management level baby boomer. I also remember reading some articles on flex hour shortly after that. True, they weren’t mainstream (and still aren’t yet) but they were they. Gen X may have “embraced” them by taking advance of the opportunity but they didn’t create them.

  44. Alison
    Alison says:

    Oh please. These are ridiculously sweeping statements with nothing to back them up. I’ve seen no evidence of Gen Y being picked for leadership positions over Gen X. This reads like wishful thinking.

  45. Beth C
    Beth C says:

    As soon as I read this post, I was dying to break away from my meetings today to read the comments. Rebecca, I think you should take it as a huge compliment when those who criticize your provocative post largely do so by griping over the details (e.g. casual Friday catalysts, Xers feeling like Yers, Yers feeling like Xers, etc.) or by making equally broad sweeping generalizations that rest solely on the evidence of their own experiences at work.

    I'm disappointed in the lackluster debate over the validity of "generation" here. So many of the comments attack the validity of this MACRO concept using MICRO examples. Analysis of generations differences should be a lens that helps us understand (albeit only broadly) one another's different work perspectives, expectations and values. If my Boomer mentor promotes blogs and is addicted to his iPod and my Yer sister is a loyal employee who hates text messaging, their individual traits have no bearing on the validity of generational trends. Stop speaking from authority by citing examples where n=1 or 2!!

    David H is right – we live in a flattening, increasingly connected world. How can these shifts not shape new generations in real, lasting ways? I agree that Gen Y will mature like its predecessors, but the claim that the real issue is "lifestage" strikes me as incredibly over-simplistic. Aren't many of you ignoring of the impact of a rapidly changing environment?

    To lend some clarity to the confusion about generations and birth years – here is a chart that has been developed based on the synthesis of demographer research. The numbers are US based.

    Generation Birth Years
    Veterans 1925 to 1945
    Baby Boomers 1946 to 1964 (80 million)
    Generation X 1965 to 1980 (40 million)
    Generation Y 1981 to 1993 (about 78 million, dependent on birth years used)

    @ Sean – €“ you're already too late. Futurists and sociologists have been referring to those born from 1993 to 2000 as "Generation Z" for years.

    Rebecca, I appreciate your analysis but do have concern with the tone of the post. You have interesting things to say and perhaps the Xers and Boomers would listen if all Yers crafted our messages more thoughtfully. If you're interested in press rather than progress, I get it, but if we are to have more of the latter, I believe a more respectful conversation about leveraging generational understanding is due. Either way, thank you for contributing to the generational change dialogue. I just love all of this: the controversy, the ignorance, the insights and the challenge ahead of us to convince organizations to proactively adapt to shifting mindsets of their workforce – before they are left in the dust.

  46. MariaMH
    MariaMH says:

    I agree with many of the assertions that the generation gaps are probably being overused here. I am not saying I can speak for my generation, but I can offer my view of things.

    At 41 (I think that makes me the upper cusp of Gen X?!) I have something that no one who is 24 has – 19 years of experience. And contrary to popular belief, it hasn’t all been bad! I have worked for and with some great people from all generations and I have learned valuable things from them.

    I was idealistic at 24 too, but my experience has not taught me cynicism; instead I think of it as healthy realism. I am realistic about what can be accomplished – more of an evolution not a revolution. In other words, you change this little thing, then that little thing, and in a few months you have gotten a lot closer to where you want to be. Often if you try to upend everything all at once you alienate people who should want to help you. I have no fear of the possibilities, I am excited by them; however I do think you need to temper them with a realistic view of what can be accomplished in certain time periods.

    And by the way, I have won plenty; as I have moved from position to position I have gained knowledge and insight that you cannot put a price tag on, but if you must, I have always increased my salary. I cannot imagine someone who is 24 stepping over me to get to a position because I have usually worked for people who value the talent and skills I have gained over the years (and when they didn’t, I got the heck out).

    And the Gen Yers I know have been all too happy to learn from me. They realize I can teach them a lot about the work we do, the field we are in, and work life in general. Just as I will continue to learn from them and everyone I work with. And that is what will ensure I am successful, along with my generation and every generation – learning from all experiences, good and bad, and taking them with us everywhere we go.

    I don’t distrust people – but I do realize that everyone has their own agenda. You had better understand where people are coming from and what their goals are before you jump in and start going gangbusters on something they don’t want. I am independent and rely on myself to get ahead; but I rely on others to help me as I make my way just as they rely on me to help when I can.

    I realize this column was meant to get conversations started, which it certainly has. But I hope that no one gets the idea that Gen X is this miserable, negative generation that is so self-involved that they cannot see what is going on around them, because that doesn’t describe me or anyone else I know in my generation.

  47. aaron
    aaron says:

    Reading Ryan’s posts, I was left with the taste of the guy who wrote “my startup life”. Joel Spolsky pretty much nailed it:

    [begin quote here]
    His book, unfortunately, tells you almost nothing about starting a company. It’s really, really thin on stories of what the actual company did and how things worked. Worse, the book is padded with really, really embarrassing sidebars in which Ben gives you jejune Great Thoughts about business management.

    Great entrepreneurs show up, take small risks (and sometimes, large risks), raise their hand when they’re confused, and try to figure out what’s going on and how a situation could be made better.

    When you show up and raise your hand, you’ve already outperformed 90 percent of the crowd.


    The person on the receiving end of the mentoring relationship should work hard to insure it’s not totally a one-way street.

    Ben Ben Ben.

    Yes, you’re smart and good looking. Yes, you know more about starting a software company than practically any other 19 year old. And sure, I’ll be happy to invest in your next startup, or hire you, or adopt you, whatever.

    But. Mark my words. You’re going to reach the ripe old age of 23, and you’re going to look back on this book you wrote, and you’re going to say, “how on earth did anyone let me publish such self-important crap,” and you’re practically going to die of embarrassment. Trust me: I’m in my 40s, and I’m still morbidly embarrassed by the pompous, arrogant, self-important crap I write on this site here, up to and including this very sentence.
    [end quote here]

    Ryan and Rebecca both fall under the (natural) heading of…being in their twenties.

    I mean, when I was their age, I thought I “got it”. I’m embarrassed to think of the sage advice and perspective on the world I offered to those around me.

    Was it worth crap? Yes and no. It’s a natural part of the learning process. I regurgitated the opinions of those around me, those I held in esteem. Mostly without realizing it. And certainly without the breadth of life experience to back them up.

    Kudos to both Ryan and Rebecca for writing what they are doing now. They will go far. They’ve shown drive, initiative, and a willingness to put themselves out and have their opinions skewered by a bunch of crotchety older folks like us.

    (obligitory generation remark: I’m 33, smack in the middle of genx, and vividly remember my 12th grade IB english teacher referring to us as the ‘most cynical class she could remember teaching in 20-some-odd years’. So we were cynical early, thanks.)

    Do “gen y’ers have their choice of jobs”? Umm…no. Competent and dynamic individuals have their choice of jobs. (the aforementioned 20-year-olds fall in this category.) Ok, ok…given the job market the mediocre-to-lazy population of gen-y can choose from Wendys, McDonalds, OR Burger King.

    (just like the mediocre-to-lazy populations of GenX and all before them..)

    and I couldn’t just leave this bit alone:
    A Gen Xer is often found at the office, squeezing by on their flextime, and blocking out the world with their iPod

    You’re kidding, right? It’s not the 27+year-old crowd I see being defined by having their ipod grafted onto interesting bits of their anatomy.

    Generalizations, rehashed generational firebrands, tired cliche’s. Rebecca, you can do better. (and I know you will)

    You want to blow me away with your writing? (of course not, you don’t care a rat’s whisker about my personal opinion, but bear with me) Read and digest this:

    It’s an essay written by George Orwell on the brutalization of the English language by political rhetoric. Good stuff. (And yes, I’m guilty of violating almost all his rules at times.) Read and apply, and I guarantee us old fogies will sit up and take notice.

    (I’d write more, but it’s pretty much been summed up above much more eloquently)

    Cheers and good luck!

  48. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    “To Gen X, I just don't get how the world works. ”

    Give it ten years. After you’ve been laid off, pushed around, beaten down & marginalized – then maybe you’ll see things differently. This article is the work of an obviously naive individual in her 20’s and while that “idealism” may seem refreshing to some, it is cloying to other when you continue to paint an entire generation in such broad strokes. The trouble with posts like these is they over-genralize and fail to recognize people as individuals, instead lumping them into sometimes irrelevant categories.

    What I find most interesting is that this person doling out career advice has had one job according to her blog bio. Given the tone and positioning in her article, she appears to describe much of these situations from her own point of view. There is nothing less authentic than advice from someone with limited experience.

    And since when is Madison, WI urban?

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