Gen X: The Forgotten Feds


I can’t pinpoint the first time I heard the term generation X (the moniker placed upon those of us born between about 1962 and 1980), but I remember I was immediately put off by it. The concept that an entire generation would be stamped with a scarlet “X” and told they stood for nothing when barely out of their teens was nonsensical. I wondered what exactly we had done as a collective to be labeled with such dismissive disdain, especially by our own parents, the baby boomers (though full disclosure: my parents are not boomers, they are from the Silent Generation).

Maybe because my parents were older, or because they were life-long educators, they were very conscious of the power of the words, and of the unintended consequences of, classifying a child in a particular way. Whatever their reasoning, it helped me escape most of the stigmatizing and subsequent self-doubt that plagued many friends and colleagues.

Today, as the nearly 90 million of our generation (in the United States) prepare to navigate middle age and beyond, we continue to face the challenge of how we are viewed and how we view ourselves. This fact is as evident in federal service as it is in the world at large.

When I came into the fed eight years ago, much of the talk was about the impending brain drain: the massive loss through retirement and attrition of the baby boomer generation. And while this concern has never completely gone away, a few years ago the conversation shifted to how the government could attract and retain millennials. As I listened to these two distinct discussions of the impact both the gain and the loss would have on the government, I realized that only rarely were those of us in between, generation X, ever even mentioned.

I would like to be able to say that I have seen a shift in how generation X is viewed in federal service, but I haven’t. In fact if anything, I’ve heard (and overheard) statements like “it’s time to retire and leave this to the millennials to run” and “it’s time for the X’ers, aka the dinosaurs to move out of our way: it’s our turn.”

So where does that leave generation X, exactly? The answer is we are on way up. Many X’ers in federal service are in the mid and senior level of their careers, GS 12s through 15s and entering the Senior Executive Service. Few of us are retirement eligible and most of us aren’t ready (either financially or otherwise) to retire anyway. We are frequently not the most vocal people in the room, but we are at the table, listening, observing and moving our federal careers forward, as generations have before us, but on our terms.

So you let’s say you’re an outnumbered X’er in either a boomer or millennial heavy office? How do you stake your claim?

  • Speak up—ensure your voice is heard and make it known that your perspective is valid. If having all eyes on you isn’t your forte, it doesn’t have to be: say what you mean, mean what you say (however brief), and know you made a contribution to the whole.
  • Don’t ignore the elephant in the room—sometimes you will be the only X’er in the room: accept it and own it.
  • Diversity includes you—many people think conversations about diversity are only along the lines of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. But diversity also includes understanding how each generation in the workforce learns differently.

Will generation X always be seen as the uncaring, underperforming, and unfocused slackers; or will be remembered:

  1. As the people who revolutionized technologies most of us can’t live without (personal computers, cell phones, );
  2. The men and women who went to Iraq and Afghanistan; and
  3. The generation that gave the world such diverse talents as Carl Lewis, Gwen Stefani, Wayne Greztsky, Eddie Murphy, Jodi Foster, and Lenny Kravtiz.

Ultimately, how history will judge us is unknown and out of our control. But what is within our control is ensuring that each of us do our part, both in our personal- and our work-life, to ensure that we are heard. To borrow (and most respectfully) alter a song by the Godfather of Soul James Brown: “Say it loud: I’m X and I’m proud!”

Kim Martin-Haynes is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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