Roundtable Discussion: Gen X vs. Gen Y


What are the generational differences between Gen X and Gen Y (or Millennials)? Sociology of Style writers Eve Kerrigan, Rachel Gall, and Anna Akbari have a multi-generational debate in our latest Roundtable Discussion. 

Anna: So maybe we should kick off by stating our ages and whether we identify with any particular generation? I’m 35 and I guess I’m Gen X, and I probably identify more with it -- though that seems to be a very unhip thing to say.

Rachel: I turned 30 a week ago. And I definitely relate to the millennial generation, as I write about them.

Eve: Hi, I am 40. I am Gen X. Pretty stereotypically so in some ways, but I also really identify with Millennials. I am somewhere right in the middle, I think, even though my age pinpoints me as Gen X.

Rachel: Yes, I think the age-span represented in this discussion encompasses the shift from Gen X to Millennial.

Anna: What’s funny is my self-categorization is more “I’m not this” than “I’m this.” I know very little about what Gen X is supposed to be, but I know and understand how Millennials manifest and behave much more. It’s interesting the obsession we have with that generation. Is Gen X less interesting / controversial??

Eve: I don’t think so, Anna. I think that Millennials are literally just more current. They are also the larger consumers and creators of pop culture, so that generation is more in focus right now. Oddly, I believe Millennials are emulating Gen X to some extent. Gen X was cool -- and controversial at the time -- because it was very much the “anti-hero” of the generations in that it was, as a generation, an outsider and committed to counter cultural contribution. The hallmarks of Gen X were/are cynicism about culture, government, establishment. This is/was good and bad. Millennials, I think, seek to be a bit more integrative in their approach to culture. They are a more adaptive group.

BTW, your statement “self-categorization is more “I’m not this” than “I’m this.” “ is very Gen X!

Anna: Ha -- at least I'm consistent!

Rachel: Yes, Eve is right, it’s that Millennials have been becoming adults the last decade, and are being studied more. GenX had quite a bit of focus through the 90s and early 2000s.

Anna: Perhaps it’s the professor in me -- or I’m just getting old -- but “kids these days” do not interact in the way that pretty much every (currently living) generation has engaged. One huge factor is that there’s no hierarchy. We’re all equals! And I think that’s problematic for society. There’s a place for context-specific hierarchy and the social discourse and exchanges that unfold as a result.

Eve: I agree that kids today have a strange context for relating -- due to social media, technology and the enormous influence it has had on their development, the complete and utter shift in media and the shortening of attention spans, etc. Some of that is quite unfortunate. But, I think the part about their being no hierarchy is one of the things I like about the Millennial culture. I never related to a system or world in which anyone had any authority over me! Also, a very Gen X perspective.

Anna: But what about deference for experience, wisdom, etc? Perhaps “hierarchy” isn’t the right word -- but a “hey, I don’t care if you objectively know and have done more than me, we’re both just human and should have equal rights, privileges, and authority in this space.” I think too much “flatness” doesn’t encourage growth. It’s not only frustrating to the Gen X-er (or whomever), but it’s also stifling to the Millennial. No one wins -- and certainly not society as a whole.

Eve: Yeah. I hear that. I guess I distinguish between deference or respect for those with more life experience, etc. and a sense of hierarchy. Even in the face of experience, a fresh perspective can go a long way. I do think we should “have equal rights” in spite of our varying levels of experience. We can all learn from each other regardless of our age, position, etc.  I am not, however, a proponent of dismissing a person’s experience as without value just because “we are all the same.” It reminds me a little of the attitude of rebel youth toward the establishment in the 50s,  60s and 70s when the mantra was “trust no one over 30.” We would all be out!

Rachel: I noticed a distinctive shift in college. A lot of my professors were definite GenXers, and they shared with my class when we were about to graduate that the incoming freshman were entitled in some ways. They didn’t care if they failed an assignment, and would ask for grade changes for no reason. Things that people my age found shocking and entitled. Later on, my husband taught Millennials and had several parents call him asking him to change their kid’s grades. He didn’t…

Anna: Oh, the parents...we need to talk about them, too. Cause these kids didn’t raise themselves.

Eve: Big yes on that, Rachel. I think anyone who is not a Millennial would agree the worst trait among Millennials is their overblown sense of entitlement. It is a hallmark of that group. Having said that, I see some unfortunate entitlement issues manifesting in Gen- Xers, too. They just show up a little differently.

Rachel: Anna, you are so right about the “all equals” thing. Millennials have been clueless about how to function in the workplace. Not everything is a democracy. Their “soft skills” are completely lacking, according to a Bentley University study. I’ve seen it, and unfortunately early on made huge workplace blunders myself. The parenting style Millennials were raised with was focused on empowering them as individuals, because their parents grew up with the opposite style. Sort of a “one-size-fits all” style. So when Millennials hit adulthood, they’re shocked that the world, or workplace, doesn’t bend to fit them as an individual. Also, the idea that there is a hierarchy doesn’t even occur to Millennials. A theory is that they were so coddled by parents and teachers, etc., that they see authority as something to meet their needs.

Anna: Lack of hierarchy, entitlement -- those are definitely two of the primary traits we hear applied to Millennials. I also would add (and this may get me in trouble, so I’ll try to word it delicately) a lack of work ethic (I won’t call it laziness). Of course this is a companion to entitlement. And what’s interesting, is I’m seeing it manifest even in individuals who did not grow up wealthy, where we previously saw more entitlement behavior surface. Now it’s socio-economic-agnostic -- yippee!  But seriously, I see it in the classroom and the workplace over and over. Guys and girls. Rich and poor. Is it apathy? Or just a symptom of entitlement?

Eve: I hear a lot of people older than me complain about the Millennial laziness trend. They just don’t have the work ethic, I’m told. But, I see it a little differently. The people I largely hear making that complaint are, frankly, workaholics who kill themselves at their jobs because their identities are very wrapped up in vocation. I think the Millennial generation is cautious of that trap. I think they see themselves differently and identify with more than just their work so their values are, essentially, different. They value leisure time more, they value creativity more, they value family more.  I think that is basically a good thing, except when those values take them entirely away from their work commitments in a way that is imbalanced. And, on the flipside, I have known a lot of Millennials who have put in big hours when the work they are doing is meaningful to them. I just don’t think we are generating a population who will work for the sake of work anymore. As the marketplace shifts from goods-based to idea-based, that makes sense. I think this was also something Gen X felt, but had less clarity and/ or resources to deal with it.

Anna: I get that. But then those individuals -- who are often just starting out -- end up requiring others to pick up the slack, even on the most mundane tasks. I think I have a good work/life balance, but I also put in my time and did the dirty work. What happens when we have an entire generation that can’t be bothered with mundane dirty work? I think that’s a problem.

Eve:  And yet, interestingly, we live now in a work culture and marketplace of the unpaid intern. People are expected all the time to do more for less. People are getting internships at 50 because competition in the job marketplace is so steep. Maybe our expectations need to change some.

Anna:  Agreed. Though I did so many unpaid internships -- maybe you guys did, too? My philosophy is you aren’t hirable when you first become an intern. You still need to put in the work and learn some skills. Then you should start getting paid. Now, on the other side, I had an agency tell me last year that I would need to do a free internship with them before they’d consider hiring me. To clarify: They were only hiring PhDs with extensive experience for very senior-level work. So there is a limit to those demands. (I laughed and said goodbye.)

Eve: I agree that job skills are often lacking when people enter the workplace and there is a learning curve. Sometimes internships are appropriate, but I don’t think it should be the norm. It used to be, employers would invest in their employees and pay them as they learned, though, understandably, they made less. Now, of course, people don’t stick with the same job for 40 some odd years like they did back then but it still isn’t appropriate to demand that people commit 6 months, a year, etc of free labor to be taken seriously when they leave school with crippling debt and more competition than ever before.  I think we need to pay people from the start or we engender laziness. How can an employee feel invested in their company when there is little investment in them? It just adds to the transient nature of Millennial employment.

Anna: Entrepreneurial ventures would be an exception here -- if you’re in a large corporation, then yes. But if you’re in a scrappy company, you get more valuable hands-on experience than you would making copies at a large firm. Big companies should pay from day one.

Rachel: What I notice with Millennials, though, is that they really can be delusional. They honestly don’t get that there is certain work ethic, and workplace protocol that’s just neccessary. So there is an interesting shift that takes place when Millennials finally get a reality check, or wake-up call -- whatever you want to call it -- and they do grow up. It’s like they understand the necessity of such things, and adjust and can become great workers who are enthusiastic, cooperative, and ironically very respectful of authority once they understand that it’s necessary (or even exists).

Rachel: The work ethic thing is an unfortunate trend I’ve seen as well. But you’re right Eve, part of it is wanting to adjust to a greater work-life balance. They observed their parents over-working, and stressing themselves out. The word sustainability is a word I see pop up a lot in regards to Millennials. Not just the environment or organic food, but emotionally stable living. Contentment.

Eve:  Millennials are dedicated to sustainability -- of all kinds. Unfortunately, I think they are also very self-involved, and they carry that much further into their adulthood than earlier generations did.

Anna: I guess I’m not seeing it as much of a balance. It feels a little lop-sided. And when does a 23-year-old who demands more “leisure time” just become lazy?

Rachel: I think it is laziness. A theme I keep seeing in articles about Millennials, not just in the workplace, but in life in general, is to not cut them any slack. They need a reality check. Some handle it very well, and learn and grow from it. It’s like it finally clicks how the “real world “ works, and if they really are hungry for success, they have to live by certain principles. After that adjustment, they can be really humble and productive. Other Millennials stay clueless and delusional, and I might even add somewhat bitter and resentful.

Anna: I’ve had so many conversations with former students and 20-something co-workers who just can’t understand why the world doesn’t realize how great they are? And so they quit their jobs -- without any backup -- rely on their parents or the goodwill of others, because they can’t be bothered with work that is “beneath them,” even though they have NO EXPERIENCE DOING ANYTHING EVER.

Eve:  Yes. I agree completely. This is a big, dumb issue with Millennials. In spite of everything I said above, they really don’t often get the concept of earning respect or moving up with “hard work.” But then, they surprise me, because they are so entrepreneurial and creative. There are more young people starting businesses than ever before, more interesting job memes than ever before, because of Millennials. But what is up with these parents who just pay and pay? I don’t even understand how they do it!  They are only harming their kids.

Rachel: Anna, I did that, too, at first. I quit jobs I felt were beneath me. I know so many people my age who had (or still have) the same attitude. WHY?? Is culture teaching us that, our parents, or what? That was years ago now, but it’s a definite Millennial thing. Post-financial meltdown is helping with that reality check, though.

Anna: Cutting your kids off financially (in a large-if-not-complete way) sooner than later is the biggest gift you can give them.

Eve: Yes! They need to be self-sufficient.

But, you know, Gen X was similar in that they (we) inherited an f-ed up economy, the death of the American dream, etc. the difference was that my generation became bitter about it and just got lousy jobs and stopped caring. They still complain about how hard they have it. It’s very underwhelming.

Rachel: I’ve seen that, too, and had that attitude, as well, right out of college. But, in defense of Millennials, someone really dropped the ball in teaching them this. I don’t know if it was parents, teachers, or pop culture. But it’s a definite trend I’ve seen. Poor, poor special Millennials. They’re not nearly as special as they think. Some will appreciate correction on this issue, and some will not. The ones who don’t, you just need to do what you said Anna -- say goodbye.

Anna: So, let’s talk about the parents and adults that raised this generation. What did they do differently and why?

Rachel: I’ve heard my own parents say that their parents didn’t give much personal guidance. It was like you hit 18, and they kicked you out and expected you to get married, and get a job, get a house...whatever. Boomers didn’t want to do that with their kids, so they encouraged them to aim higher….but didn’t teach them how to reach their goals, and didn’t correct them about unrealistic goals. Really, I think Millennials’ parents had good intentions.

Eve: Yes, on all of that. Also, the idea among early Gen-xers (the parents of Millennialls) that their kids should have everything they were deprived of...

Anna: Yes, I think the parents have/had good intentions, but their rose-colored glasses are so detrimental to their children’s long-term well-being. The parents do not detach and they implant delusions of grandeur in every single kid. To the Millennial’s credit, I often think the parents are in greatest need of correction and therapy.

Eve: Yes. Isn’t it so passé to try to live vicariously through your kids?:)

Anna: Very.

Rachel: Boomers also over-parented. Instead of teaching kids to be self-directed, their parents inadvertently taught Millennials to rely on them for all of the important stuff. Ironically, the more hands-off style Boomers were raised with was beneficial to them. It made them more independent and self-directed. So much so they were perhaps over-confident in directing their Millennial offspring.

Anna: That’s a great point.

Eve: Big time, Rachel!! The over-parenting is a major issue. Or, it seems like parents either have their head up the kid’s butt or they are completely disassociated and self-involved themselves. Two bad extremes. Over-parenting was not just an issue with Boomers, btw. It is a big thing I am seeing now.

Anna: Haha, Eve… Yes, independence and self-direction. The antidote to coddled and lazy. I think those should be two guiding principles for all parents. Speaking of, I’d love to hear how you both are/will try to edit, transform, and continue any of these trends and parenting styles with your children?

Rachel: I just read an article today about how parenting styles are shifting again. Millennials want to raise their kids with more free-time and want them to be more independent and self-reliant. I definitely agree with this philosophy. I can’t make every decision for my kids the rest of their life. And life brings disappointments, so I want them to know how to manage that instead of being delusional and thinking they are more special than they actually are. But I also want them to know how to follow their dreams -- but they won’t be able to achieve them without a good work ethic and perseverance. I also want them to be ok with being “normal.” Something Millennials seem to be afraid of.

Anna: No room for average or normal! That reminds me of the old Lake Wobegon line: “Where the women are all strong, the men are all good-looking, and the children are all above average.”

Eve: Yes. I don’t know about free time, per se, but I agree, self-reliance and independence are good gifts to give a child. I have been on the side of things where I have felt so on my own that I was very lost, but I have also felt very supported at other times. I think it is important to instill a deep sense of security and support that is innate in the child, but also to remind your kids they will, at some point, have their asses handed to them by life -- and they will be better off for it. Giving your kids everything is a bad idea. I want my kid to be comfortable being alone, playing alone, and also I want her to be mature and capable of interacting with others and doing so with humility, dignity, intelligence. And yes, disappointment is a part of life. Children need to learn that early so it is not a shock and crisis when it happens later.

Rachel, Gen X has a fear of normal, too. Being normal, I think for that generation, is synonymous with being pedestrian or unimportant. Average or below. So in my generation, people had to either be great -- i. e. famous or profoundly successful  -- or they didn’t bother at all and then just tried to be “different” in their style of mediocrity.  A whole generation with something to prove -- one enormous chip on the shoulder of humanity.

Rachel: Right, so it’s a continuing theme with Millennials: so much to prove, but so inept at doing so. At least GenXers had the chutzpah to achieve their goals. On the positive side, though, in the long term, I think what Millennials could offer as they finally mature is a sense of moderation and stability. I think a lot of them are growing up and either finding practical ways to achieve their goals, or chilling out a bit and finding contentment in their lives. The delusion of entitlement fades away as they get older. But the oldest are only 33 right now, so I think this trend of growing up will be more evident in the next decade.

Anna: I think I’m less optimistic that entitlement ever fades, but I do love the optimism, and I think moving toward balance as a culture is a very positive step.

Rachel: As a Millennial, a phrase that goes through my head is everyone needs to chill out a bit. CHILL OUT. Not special? Get over it, or do something about it. Anna, optimism is supposed to be a Millennial trait, as well. Because we have so much student debt, and no jobs, it’s all we have left. Delusion has it’s positive side, I guess.

Eve: I agree with that to a degree. But  I don’t know if I think Gen-xers achieved their goals. I think they achieved a sort of cultural impact. Thanks to GenX we have the hipster culture of today which results from an earlier elevation of baser cultural markers and working class trappings (hence the irony we see everywhere in fashion, etc.) that was born directly out of a generation-wide sense of low self-esteem. Millennials have a generation-wide sense of high self esteem (over-developed). Maybe the next generation will be the balance generation.

Anna: So we should basically tell the next Millennial we see that they will eventually “have their asses handed to them by life” and -- gasp -- they may just be ‘normal.’  And tell the Gen X-ers that they should stop complaining.

Eve: Anna! Yes! I am laughing out loud because, exactly!

Rachel: The complaining Gen X stereotype makes me laugh, because I feel like I’ve seen it. You have to admit Millennials were stuck with a raw deal upon reaching adulthood. Watch Stephen Colbert's speech from last year. It’s awesome. Sums up the other side of “entitlement” Millennials are experiencing. He sort of alludes to the idea that Millennials were raised to be self-indulgent and entitled, and now everyone is mad at the result. Except Millennials are being forced to adjust because of the economy, etc. Some Millennials will adjust, and some, unfortunately, will not. But I think our culture as a whole may start to chill out a bit. Hopefully.

Eve: Rachel, you have! And, yes. I hope so, too.

I think every generation thinks they got the raw deal. And, to some extent, every generation did.  In one way shape or form, whether they are war babies or culture war babies. It’s always a new thing. It is also possible that we are each hardest on our own generation...

Anna: Well, here’s to a future of balance!

Eve: Here’s to that.

Rachel: Agreed!