1. We’re poorer than our parents were at our age
Few people have been through as many economic ups and downs as the members of Generation X. Born between 1965 and 1980, many entered the workforce during the boom years of the Clinton administration—but then along came 9/11 and, a few years later, the Great Recession.
Over the last two decades, Americans born during the Depression and World War II—known as “The Silent Generation”—have been shedding debt, while boomers and Generation X have been accumulating it. As of 2010, Generation X’s assets were only double their debts, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Silent Generation’s asset levels were 27 times higher than their debts, while older boomers’ assets were about four times higher.
“In the U.S. the expectation is that every generation does better than the last one, but that has not been the case for Generation X,” says Signe-Mary McKernan, senior fellow and economist at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on social and economic policy. “Xers have less wealth than their parents at their age did 25 years ago.”
Starting life with higher student-debt loads than boomers did also made it harder for Gen Xers to get financially established, experts say (though, to be sure, millennials are shouldering even more student debt than Xers).
One bright spot: Adjusted for inflation, the median family income for Xers when they were aged 26 to 40 is $71,100, versus $63,100 for their parents at that age, according to Pew. Given their age, they still have a robust earning potential. “They are arguably better educated than any generation before them—43% graduated from college,” write the authors of a 2013 report on Gen Xers carried out by GfK Custom Research North America for MetLife. “They have significant staying power.”
2. Marketers and the media are ignoring us
Given that Generation Xers are in their late 30s and 40s now, they are—at least in theory—nearing their peak income and spending power. But marketers are more fascinated by the millennials and baby boomers, says Sharalyn Hartwell, executive director at research and consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates.
Population numbers help explain the attention gap. There are 89 million millennials (also known as Generation Y, born roughly between 1981 and 1996) and 75 million boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) in the U.S., compared with just 49 million Gen Xers. Given those numbers, the spending habits of millennials and investing trends of baby boomers are important for companies to understand, Hartwell says. The fact that Gen Xers make more money than the average millennial, by virtue of being older and farther along the pay scale, only partly offsets this.
“It is ironic Generation X have been upstaged by the younger generation and left on the shelf,” Hartwell says. “They were the original latchkey kids, and already feel like they were forgotten and neglected by their own parents.”
Even the term Generation X wasn’t invented for them. Photographer Robert Capa coined the term in a photo essay about the young adults of the 1950s (basically, the parents of those we call Gen Xers), according to Paul Taylor, executive vice president for special projects at the Pew Research Center and author of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown.” Writer Douglas Coupland is credited with salvaging the ‘X’ label with his 1991 novel, “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.”
Perhaps appropriately enough, only 41% of people who belong to the generation say they identify with the “Generation X” moniker, according the MetLife report.
3. We bought our own MTV cribs—and we regret it
One of the main reasons Gen Xers are in such bad shape economically, says McKernan: “Many bought their first homes just before the housing market crashed.” Surging house prices in the first part of this century helped build wealth for people who bought homes before the year 2000, but many people now in their 30s and 40s bought at bubble prices—and are still suffering today.
Buyers who bought between 2000 and 2006 “didn’t have much equity even before prices started falling” says Jed Kolko, chief economist at real estate website Trulia. House values have still not recovered fully, despite the recession being officially over: They fell by 34% from the 2006 peak to the fourth quarter of 2011, and have risen 23% since then, as measured by the Case-Shiller National Home Price Index.
From 2007 to 2010, the median net worth of Gen Xers fell by nearly half (45%), according to Pew, with declining home equity accounting for much of the drop. In contrast, median net worth among boomers, who had more time to build up wealth other than home equity, fell between 25% and 28%.
The good news: The recovering housing market is gradually pulling more people out of this hole. The overall number of homes in negative equity has dropped to 6.3 million in the first quarter of 2014 from 9.8 million last year, CoreLogic found.
4. Our wives earn more than we do
Male Xers may be the first generation to face serious competition from women in the workplace, says Melinda Marshall, director of publications for the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank. That competition often includes their spouses. According to a 2011 survey of nearly 3,000 college-educated, white-collar workers by the CTI, nearly one-fifth of Generation X men earn less than their wives, compared with 14% of boomer men.
As Marshall notes, “The recession seemed to be one of those inflection points in which women more than men retained their jobs.” The male/female ratio of job losses during the recession was 2.6 to 1, in part because women held more jobs in less cyclical, services-related industries, according to the Labor Department. “By no means has that trend come to a stop,” Marshall adds.
A shared focus on work and career has also meant that Generation Xers are having fewer kids. Many of them are delaying or opting out of parenting altogether: 43% of college-educated, white collar women from this generation are childless, the Center for Talent Innovation survey found; other estimates hover at 25% for women born during the baby boom. Long work days, economic challenges left over from the recession, and changing social mores have all contributed to the high level of childlessness among Generation X, the report said.
5. We look forward to a happy retirement…someday
In the 2013 MetLife survey, half of Gen Xers reported that they were behind on their retirement savings; 7% hadn’t started saving, and 11% said they had no retirement goals. That puts them behind the national average. “Generation X…could be the first cohort that will have downward mobility in retirement,” says Diana Elliott, research officer at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Still, since Gen Xers are in their 40s or younger, there’s time to play catch-up. With 75% of Xers working, employer-sponsored seminars and incentives such as 401(K) matches programs will be effective in boosting Gen X retirement saving, according to the MetLife report.
6. Boomers stand in our way at work…
The recession hit just as many boomers were about to retire, and many postponed it due to the slump in their portfolios. Some 39% of boomers who are working don’t expect to retire until they are 66 or older, and another 10% say they don’t expect to ever retire, according to a recent Gallup poll.
That’s exasperating for Xer professionals, says Dan Schawbel, author of “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success.” “They haven’t been able to claim those leadership positions,” he says. “They’re frustrated that they’re stuck in middle management.”
Generation X workers champing at the bit for a promotion may eventually get their wish. When asked, “Which generation do you believe is best equipped to manage teams effectively?” 70% of workers said Generation X make the most effective managers, versus 25% for boomers and 5% for millennials, according to a survey released last year by accounting and consulting firm EY found.
7.…and millennials want to pass us on the corporate ladder
There’s competition between Gen Y and Gen X in the workplace. The Center for Talent Innovation’s Marshall notes: “Generation Y were the darlings because of their fluency in all things digital.” After the recession, Xers were left holding the bag in terms of accountability, she adds: “They took the hit when things went wrong.”
Youth and ambition appear to go hand-in-hand. Gen Xers—perhaps jaded by the years they’ve already logged in the workplace—are somewhat agnostic about getting ahead. Approximately 58% of men from Generation X and 41% of women say they want the top job, according to a 2013 survey of 2,000 adults by the Pew Research Center. In contrast, 70% of millennial men and 61% of millennial women—defined by that particular study as aged 18 to 32—say they’d like to be boss. Only 45% of respondents in a CTI survey said that they regarded millennials as “team players,” while 65% associated that label with Gen Xers.
8. We’re jaded about the American Dream
In a recent survey, Magid Associates asked respondents whether they believed in “the American Dream,” which the respondents defined as involving Homeownership, educational opportunities and the likelihood of doing better than the previous generation. Just 64% of Xers said they believed, compared with 73% of boomers and 71% of millennials.
If the MTV generation seems pessimistic, it may be because for them collectively, many things haven’t turned out as planned. When older Xers reached their most sexually active years in the 1980s they were hit by the AIDS epidemic, Hartwell says. And just as they hit their stride in their careers, they were buffeted by an economic downturn in 2001 and recession in 2008. In contrast, “Boomers taught their millennial children that the world was their oyster,” Hartwell says.
Xers do have some less cynical qualities. Some 31% of Gen Xers say most people can be trusted, while only 19% of millennials agree, a survey by the Pew Research Center found. Xers stuck together after 9/11, experts say, perhaps helped by the upbringing of their parents, who lived through the turbulence of the 1960s.
9. Our kids have attitude issues
Some of the pessimism of the Gen Xers has rubbed off on their children. A Magid Associates survey of “Plurals”—children born after 1996—found differences between those with Gen X parents and those with boomer parents.
Asked what qualities were important for young people to develop, 34% of plurals with Gen X parents agreed that “dependability” was important—compared with 44% of those with boomer parents. And 19% of plurals with Gen X parents agreed that being “respectful” was important—compared with 44% of children of boomers. Only 60% of plurals believe in the American dream, the survey found.
Some believe that the shared pessimism of the two generations stems from similar parenting. After all, Hartwell of Magid Associates says, Gen Xers grew up in the 1970s and 1980s of “helicopter” parenting when those chilling “Do you know where your kids are?” public service announcements aired on TV. “Xers are more ‘fighter jet’ parents,” she says. “They’re hands-on, combative and will track their kids through electronic surveillance.”
10. We’re the ultimate swing voters
Generation X is arguably more politically diverse than any other and, as such, its members are hard to predict as voters, says Neil Howe, a founding partner and president of LifeCourse Associates, a publishing, speaking and consulting company. “They’re the loose cannon on the ship,” he says. “They could gravitate toward any political leader in [the 2016 presidential elections] and this brings a weird, unstable energy to the political landscape.”
Some 22% of Generation X are immigrants versus 17% of millennials, according to the Pew Research Center. And on some social issues, Gen Xers sit squarely between boomers and millennials on the political spectrum: 55% of Xers support same-sex marriage (compared with 68% of millennials and 48% of boomers); and 64% describe themselves as “patriotic” (versus 75% of boomers and 49% of millennials).
The oldest members of Generation X are more likely to have voted Republican throughout their voting lives, while the youngest have been more likely to vote Democrat, says Taylor from the Pew center. Not that they like being labeled. “They have a problem with pollsters, demographers and zeitgeist keepers,” Taylor says. “They’re defined by who came before them and who came after.”