Generation X: In Search of Reasons for Hope

Members of Generation X who grew up during the 1970s carry an overriding sense of detachment. Compared with other generations – both those younger and those older – individuals born between 1965 and 1980 are generally less optimistic about their future, are slightly less concerned about global issues, and demonstrate less passion than other generations in a survey. 

Generation X may care less about critical issues of the day than other generations, but businesses shouldn’t take this relative aloofness to mean that Gen X doesn’t put thought into its purchasing or employment decisions. Rather, to attract Gen Xers as consumers or employees, companies need to find areas of Gen X passion. 

Organizations that tap into this group’s areas of emotional intensity – including the appearance, performance, and quality of products or services – can win their respect and their buying power. And leaders who offer optimistic views of the future and provide evidence that they care about peoples’ well-being can appeal to this group. 

These findings about Gen X emerged from a January 2020 online survey of 10,000 Canadians and Americans by SAP Insights research group. While the research into different generations’ emotional responses to leadership decisions took place before the pandemic and related economic woes, the results demonstrate that emotions evoke and influence decisions regardless of topics of the day. 

Leaders who offer optimistic views of the future and provide evidence that they care about peoples’ well-being can appeal to this group. 

That’s because prospective customers and employees in all generations are gauging their buying and employment decisions on issues that sometimes go beyond traditional metrics like prices and pay rates to include larger-picture issues, such as organizational transparency and the ethical behavior of business leaders. 

Business leaders can’t afford to stay neutral on global issues

To discern respondents’ levels of emotional intensity, individuals were presented with 17 global issues, such as climate change, education, and work-life balance, and were asked to attach an emotional rating to each one, choosing from 12 different emotions, such as admiration, disgust, and enthusiasm. (Response choices were equally balanced between positive and negative emotions). Using their responses, we generated a standardized Emotional Index to capture the strength of participants’ emotions across all areas. 

We then identified areas of intensity and specific displays of passion around different issues. A group we defined as the Passionates compromise 20% of our respondent base across all generations, with 18% of Generation X respondents falling into this group. The Passionates’ strong feelings clearly influence their purchasing and employment decisions. For example, 73% of Passionates have said a business leader’s position on societal issues affects their buying behavior, compared with 64% of Gen X respondents. 

Generation X focuses on well-being 

At ages 40 to 55, members of Generation X are thinking very close to home when they identify issues they care most about. For example, about one-third (33.8%) of Gen Xers rated mental health as an important issue, compared with 31.6% of others in the survey. And 27.6% of Gen X say work-life balance is a critical concern, compared to 20.9% of everybody else. 

As Figure 1 shows, Gen X cares a great deal about healthcare access and is less passionate about environmental issues than those in other generations. 

Generation X nurse spending socially-distanced time with child

Buying considerations: Finding the right signals for Gen X 

Because Gen X is less optimistic about the future – about 3% less so than other groups in the survey – businesses will have to work harder for their dollars. Leaders seeking to appeal to those individuals now in their 40s and early 50s have to strike a balance: persuade Gen X that their products and services are reliable, trustworthy, and visually appealing. 

A key trigger for this group of buyers is aesthetics, including the look and feel of products and services and the appearance and design of company branding, packaging, and Web sites. Gen Xers are more likely to pay attention to aesthetics, with 66% ranking it as an important consideration, compared to 63% of all other respondents. Whether it’s packaging or a visually enticing Web site, businesses would do well to make it look good. 

Otherwise, Gen Xers more closely align with Millennials in their purchasing decisions. Traditional characteristics, such as price, product and service performance, and quality, matter more to Gen Xers than Gen Zers, who are in their early 20s and younger, as Figure 2 shows. 

Modern workspace

There are cases where Generation X aligns with Generation Z, such as with placing stock in the opinions of others: 64% of Gen Xers and 67% of Gen Zers say online reviews are an important factor in their purchasing decisions, compared with 53% of Boomers and 74% of Millennials. 

However, Gen X is less likely than all other generations to base purchasing decisions on the ability of business leaders to affect change or the authenticity of these leaders. 

In the workplace, Gen X says: Pay me. Be real. Let’s make quality products. 

To attract and retain Gen X employees, organizations must emphasize compensation while remembering that pride of place, authenticity, and strong business leadership are important characteristics. 

Gen Xers, likely near the peak of their earning potential, care a lot about their wages. Asked which employment considerations are most important to them, 86% chose occupational compensation. That’s more in line with Boomers (88%) and Millennials (82%) and much higher than Gen Zers (73%). 

Generation Xer explaining something to two younger adults

In addition, Gen Xers are most likely to desire authenticity in their employers, with 79% giving this characteristic importance compared with 63% of Baby Boomers. Millennials and Gen Zers have a similar desire, at 78% and 76%, respectively. 

They also want to be proud of their work. Gen Xers, like Boomers, refer to product/service performance and quality as important factors in their employment decisions – more so than Millennials and Gen Zers. 

Similarities between Gen X and other generations are evident in such workplace issues as their business leaders’ ability to effect change while demonstrating transparency, empathy, and openness. Generation X demonstrates the same levels of emotional intensity in these areas as other groups in the survey. 

Positive outcomes can result from an optimistic slant 

In some respects, Generation X may care less about critical issues of the day than those in other generations. Yet that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about anything. 

Organizations would do well to highlight factors like price, compensation, appearance, and quality. Like everybody else, Gen Xers will compare, buy, and work for organizations that demonstrate they’ve paid attention to these matters. And leaders need to give Gen Xers reasons to care about their work: showing they can effect change and care about the quality of the work. With those efforts, businesses will tap into Gen X’s passions.