X Files: Surviving the Next Social Epidemic

By Heather Baldwin

At a recent conference, Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling book The Tipping Point (Back Bay Books, 2000), mused that he thought the next big tipping point in business – the next social epidemic – will be the mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce. Furthermore, he suggested companies that have established strong relationships with their Generation X workers – defined as those born between 1961 and 1981 – will be the ones to thrive beyond the wave of retirements. Boy, did he hit the proverbial nail on the head!

There’s an ocean of difference between Boomers and Gen Xers. Boomers will remain at a job for life if it meets their financial security needs, while Gen X workers in their 20s generally stay at each job for only 1.1 years, according to the results of a new survey from researchers Charlotte and Laura Shelton. Boomers typically are motivated by money and status; Gen Xers want strong work relationships and a good work-life balance instead. If you’ve been managing Boomers for awhile, now’s the time to start thinking about creating an X-friendly environment. How? Start by focusing on four things, says Charlotte Shelton, a WiseWork coach and consultant and co-author with her daughter of The NeXt Revolution (Davies-Black, 2005). In the Sheltons’ 2003 survey of Gen X workers, respondents rated the following four factors as most important to them in the workplace.

1. Positive relationships with their supervisors. Gen Xers want to feel their voices are being heard and taken seriously, they want to feel they can go to their managers at any time on any issue and they want managers to tell it like it is. Andy Pearson, CEO of Tricon Restaurants, which includes chains such as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC, used to travel to his restaurants giving motivational speeches to employees – until he became aware that employees dreaded those visits because he said the same thing every time. Now he spends half a day working in the kitchens, showing employees new and more efficient ways of doing things. He uses relationship power to inspire change. As a sales manager you can use these same tactics: Get out in the field and show your reps a new sales technique instead of putting them in a conference room and telling them. You’ll be strengthening your relationships and building your credibility in one fell swoop.

2. Positive relationships with co-workers. The Sheltons found that having a best friend at work is one of 12 key predictors of both job satisfaction and high performance among Xers. That’s tough to facilitate in a sales environment where reps constantly are on the go, but you might experiment with sending your reps out in pairs as sales teams that work together for their clients, as one of Charlotte Shelton’s former employers did. Or create a wacky annual tradition over which your team can bond. Every Thanksgiving, for example, employees at the Lexington Hyatt Regency compete in teams against each other in a bowling tournament using frozen turkeys as bowling balls. Employees love it and talk about it all year.

3. Interesting work. Gen Xers want a lot of variety and challenge; they hate monotony. So where you can rotate your Gen Xers across product lines and territories. Offer them a chance to work in other offices around the world, if you’re a global company. TGI Friday’s has a Passport Program that gives every employee – from dishwashers to managers – the opportunity to work at any TGI Friday’s restaurant in the world for a year. The policy has turned out to be good not only for retention of Gen Xers but hiring as well.

4. Opportunities for learning. Think your turnover is high? Doug and Carolyn Bell, owners of 48 SuperCuts hair salons, had a 75% turnover – and they wanted to do something about it. Their solution? They created training programs for their employees not only in hair design and color but also in how to run your own business. In the first 18 months that they ran these workshops their turnover plummeted to 45%. “Gen Xers become so loyal and so dedicated to the managers who take the time to train them,” says Shelton. And the training doesn’t even have to be directly related to the job. Help your reps get an MBA, teach them about new software programs, help them learn a new language – your Xers’ appetites for learning and growing is insatiable. Feed it and they’ll stick around.