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The Mayhem of being an X

Updated: Jun 14

Being the “X” comes with its own sense of entitlement. After all, it confirms the existence of a relationship. The X feels the sourness initially but later recalls the relationship as being a “forming” one towards the new cloak of identity. The cycle of becoming the X, the grief, the lowering of self-belief, followed by the golden period of self-discovery are the best metaphors to understand the mid-career crisis that looms over Gen X, the most important generation we have at work today. They embody the work values we now, disappointedly at times, seek in millennials and Gen Z. 


A song by Sick Puppies, titled “What are you looking for?”, goes something like this:


“You join the line of the getting-richer

You keep your pace but it's moving slow

You are defined by all that you have hoarded

But you're surprised it doesn't fill up the hole”

 


This really sums up the feelings of GEN X, the generation that made the sun and hay, the generation that still drives the organization's most important functions and business, a generation that is lost and forgotten in a world that seems to obsess over the co-habitation of younger generations.


Born in the middle-class India of the 70s/80s, Gen X saw a formal organizational career as a ticket to financial stability and success. They spent their 20s burning the midnight oil and investing in their careers. Pressured to adapt to the volatility of the business and the pressures of sailing the ship with the somewhat “confused” and sometimes “less committed” younger talent profiles – Gen X remains cornered with the responsibility of leading from the front – at the cost of their own personal shifts in the family-life-career balance.



“Another piece of the puzzle that doesn't fit

You throw your arms up, you're so damn sick of it

What are you coping for?

What are you hoping for?”

 


Sandwiched between child and parent care, Gen X is now questioning “whether it was worth it at all”, especially since most are staring at a possible empty nest and the lesser (than expected) glory of career success. The 30s spent in dedication to a career led the generation to be less involved in the softer sides of family life – focused more on creating financial stability and lifestyles, rather than relationships and connections. In their 40s, they feel a distance from their children and spouses. Most spousal relationships are either strained, fractured or simply not in a place where the “professional self” can be shared and discussed.

 


“You won't be thinking of cars when

You're on your deathbed and dying

You'll only be thinking of what you are paying for

What you are praying for”


 

The narrow career funnel means peer relationships at work are more “competitive” than “collaborative”; this coupled with a decreasing trend of “friends at work”, leaves little opportunity to seek and receive unbiased professional advice. Personal friends are met rarely and each, also in their 40s, is probably in the midst of their own personal battle. No one senses the loneliness of the 40s - after all, who would consider a “fast-moving, travelling, busy” individual as lonely?


Gen X is today at a possible brink of a full-blown mid-life and mid-career crisis.

 


“You won't be thinking of cars when

You're on your deathbed and dying

You'll only be thinking, what are you working for?

What are you waiting for?

 


What will a mid-career crisis of Gen X mean for organizations?


How pained you are as an X, depends on how many relationships you had in the past

 

The mid-career crisis is usually the onset of a full-blown mid-life crisis, characterized by the rediscovery of “identity”. Similarities can be found between the 40s and the teenage years as both these places of life are about identity formation and redefinition. With Gen X heading towards this critical milestone, organizations can expect to see the balance of life-work tilt back to “life” with “self” in the centre. There will be experimentation and obsession with “physical attractiveness”, hyperactivity on social media built behind the desire to make self visible, experimentation with relationships and investment in adrenal enhancing activities (or adrenal controlling ones – slower and more meditative). The career will then move, from the centre fold of life to the side – leading to a lesser investment of energy in making the rain and the sunshine in their jobs.


The generation that gave it all will now select what aspects of “work” it will invest in. There will be more “closed-ness” to feedback, lower locational fungibility, “lowest time ever” spent in the office and limited patience to go engage in tasks outside the defined scope of one’s role.


Impatience with younger generations and unwillingness to spend time mentoring them will be common because every hour spent will be evaluated for what it is being traded off against.


Will every X feel the same? 


Being an X feels a certain way, in certain situations and contexts. Think, a couple’s party …. Where you now go as a new single.


The terror of the mid-career crisis is the evaluation that one does of one’s achievement against the parameters of success set in younger years. It is uncomfortable to do a self-evaluation of choices that have now yielded their consequences.

 


“I'll never be what I see on the TV screen

I just keep dreaming of what I'm never gonna be

I can't think of a better way to waste my time than try”

 


How much of the mid-career crisis will hit GEN X depends on several factors that are unique to each individual but two will commonly stand out – both on the themes of singularity and multiplicity.


Individuals with a singular identity, borrowed from their professions are likely to feel more disappointed than those who have solid identities outside of work, built at the back of interests and hobbies.  Towards this, they would have invested time and effort in their 30s. As an outcome, they will have solid off-work social capital, sounding boards, friends and safe spaces for self-expression. 


Individuals with singular career trajectories built to aim for vertically increasing roles in a narrow domain will feel the pressures of a narrow top funnel, feeling more isolated with the peer competition, manager misalignments and missed opportunities. Those with multiple exposures, cross-domains and industry experience will find it easier to shift gears and reinvent themselves.



Is the male X different from the female X? 


The X feels isolated, and deserted and has a sudden sense of loneliness, wondering if the relationship was worth it – whether a male or female.

 


In the same way, a mid-career crisis leaves similar thoughts and feelings for both genders. How each responds and how it shapes the concept of self, varies. The female Gen X weighs identity in relation to her prime role as the caretaker and family nurturer, while the male Gen X often negotiates with the prime role of the breadwinner. The female X shows more emotion and visible signs of crisis while the male X suffers in silence – both prisoners to their sociological upbringing.

 


The X will find a relationship again


Mid-life, in the 40s, is the peak of our functioning – professionally and socially. It is a period where we seemingly reap the benefits of the hard work we have invested and the value we have created around our skills. The mid-career transition is called a crisis because it shakes a visibly golden period of life, making people fall off their perches temporarily.


To manage the crisis and transition well, one needs to understand the interplay between personal goals and enabling environmental structures. An effective strategy to address the Gen X is to enable nudges in both. They need help to -


  • Rediscover their personal needs (the ones that got rusted to understand the obsessed professional race) and set personal priorities of well-being – mental and physical.

  • Identify what offers them the highest sense of emotional gratification and create time in life, for the activity.

  • Redefine the relationships with family and reaffirm the role one wants to play as a parent, caregiver, partner, cousin or sibling. Seek help to heal fractured relationships.

  • Evaluate financial security and take deliberate steps to safeguard the future (allowing one a great playground to initiate career experimentation).

  • Get an unbiased professional evaluation of skills, capabilities, interests, and opportunities.

  • Craft 2-3 possible career trajectories for the next professional decade and set up goals in line with these.

  • Re-negotiate and redefine psychological contracts with the organization.


Organizations must recognize this person of transition and provide enabling strategies that appeal and heal. Spaces for self-discovery, experiments, and career conversations are key to a successful transition.

 

There will be light


At the end of the crisis lies a new identity ready to take the world. An identity formed basis the reclaimed balance of self-career-life where trade-offs are made to keep each healthy. The love and happy memories of the long-shared relationship with the career lead to a desire to “contribute and leave a legacy”. “Self “ will seize the centre of professional identity and others will take centre stage. There will be a newfound love for mentoring people to achieve their peaks.


The new Gen X will cusp towards the 50s with newfound energy and childlike adventures – opening a plethora of possibilities for self and others.

 


Like Jung said “Life really does begin at forty. Up until then, you are just doing research.”





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