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Passed Down From Gen Xperience

How Gen X Parenting Has Influenced Gen Edge (Gen Z) Children


Survey time. When reflecting on your relationship to your parents, which of these sayings rings most true?

“The apple does not fall far from the tree.”
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
“Like mother, like daughter.” / “Like father, like son.”
“I promised myself I would never _________ like my Mom/Dad.”

Most likely the answer is some combination of all the above. While some of our behavior is the direct result of our parents' influence, there are other characteristics that show up as an equal and opposite reaction to what we encountered at home.

For example, on one hand, Millennials adopted a passion for experiencing life and trying new things as their Baby Boomers parents signed them up for every activity imaginable and cheered them on each step of the way. On the other hand, when Boomer parents told their children to, “dress for the job they wanted…”, Millennial’s pushed back with, “I am just as smart in a pair of jeans as I am in a suit.”

As the Gen X parent of a 19-year-old college student who is navigating her way through the beginning stages of adulthood, I have witnessed several eye-opening early results of my childrearing efforts. At times I see my daughter carrying on the torch of the values I championed. On other occasions, I am surprised to find her demonstrating behavior that is contrary to what I'd do in her shoes. (Shoes that I paid for, incidentally.) At other times, I've watched in awe as she's leaped beyond my limitations to pursue goals I'd never dared.

These observations have led me to wonder, “How has Gen X parenting influenced their Gen Edge children?” Case by case, there are millions of complex answers to this question, but if we look at the 2 generations as a whole, we can start with four simple categories:

  • What was said
  • What was NOT said
  • What was done
  • What was NOT done

What Was Said

You never forget the stinging life lesson of being promised something that doesn't come to pass. Whether intentional or unintentional, that memory of disappointment shapes our outlook indefinitely.

As Gen Xers we told our kids, “No risk, no reward.” Gen Edge is pushing back with “No thank you.”

In our youth, Gen X became known for our risk-taking, daredevil throw-caution-to-the-wind mindset. We did not just dance, we would breakdance, headbang, slam dance or jump into the mosh pit. We weren't satisfied to ride a bicycle to a friend's house, instead, we'd whiplash, table top, bunny hop, or nollie our skateboards and BMX bikes everywhere we went. We drank Jolt popped NoDoz and inhaled Binaca. In our minds, the X stood for Extreme and we were determined to live with No Fear.

We started unleashing all that unbridled courage into our careers as adults. Our first risk was to buy term life insurance and invest the difference. Rather than doing either, we quit our jobs to join or start a .com company in the mid 90’s and watched it become a dot bomb a few years later. Marred by that experience, we took a safer bet by investing in real estate because housing has always been a sure thing only to watch values vanish when the bubble busted. We joined a stable company when all else failed until it too failed in the great recession of 2008.

Well equipped for all of life’s disappointments, Gen Xers continue on without helmets or kneepads. Our children on the other hand have had a “crash course” on what not to do. Gen Edge has grown weary of the instability and uncertainty of life and is seeking safer bets with steady reliability. They have learned first hand that high risk can often lead to low satisfaction. Our research has shown that young people today are more inclined to seek a long term position with a steady paycheck over work life balance. This is almost the exact opposite of how Gen X started their careers.

Where as Gen X parents were very likely to be seen saying, “hit me” at the black jack table of life, their Gen Edge children are more inclined to declare, “I’ll stay”.

What Was NOT Said

UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian taught us that 80% the messages we send and receive are done so without saying words. So when it comes to the communication style of Gen Edge, perhaps the crab apple did not fall far from the tree.

Gen X tends to be blunt, straightforward and to the point. As a result, Gen Edge says

In a recent study about Gen Edge, we were interested to find that 74% say they struggle with in person communication.

While it might seem easier to blame excessive screen time for creating this conversationally challenged generation, I can’t help but wonder if there are other forces at work as well.

What if the skeptical, no-nonsense, efficient communication style of a Gen X manager at work carried over into the way they managed their families at home? What if rather than motivating their children through a two way, 30-minute “self-esteem” discussion like Baby Boomers might have done, Gen X parents opted to deliver a one way 30 second “self-determination” speech? What if our drive to “Just do it” limited the amount of time we spent “talking about it” with our kids?

I recall watching my parents coming home from work, stepping out of the car and talking to the neighbors, “for a spell”, over the fence on nearly a daily basis. In contrast, however, my daughter will tell you that, “Dad drove into the garage, shut the door behind him and headed inside to get things done.” As much as I would like to blame Snapchat for stunting Gen Edges interpersonal skills, perhaps some of the responsibility falls on the “lackchat” of Gen Xers.

What Was Done

Actions do speak louder than words. Unfortunately, “Just Do It” Gen Xers may have prevented Gen Edge from gaining a valuable experience voice of their own.

Gen Xers may no longer adorn a “Latch Key” around our necks, but we will always wear our independent nature as a badge of honor. We are proud of our ability to “get things done”, “Figure it out” or “Make it happen”. Further more, we value that same trait in others. Michael Jordan was one of the greatest athletes of all time, but he was also known to almost single handedly take over a game. He once remarked, “There is no 'i' in team but there is in win.” I guess that is why Gen X wanted to be “Like Mike”

Now that we are parents, we would love nothing more than to watch our children pick up the mantel of independent contribution. We want them to “Stand and deliver”, be the “Top Gun” and have an “Excellent Adventure”. But here is the problem. Gen Xers have a simple motto; “If you want something done right, do it yourself”. As we raised our little “Mini Me’s” we saw that they could not make a peanut butter Jelly sandwich, mow a straight line, separate their laundry or call for a job interview. So we stepped in and did it “right the first time” rather than having to “clean up after them.”

Doing their work ourselves was easier and saved us a ton of precious time. Unfortunately, it also robbed our children of the valuable lessons that are gained by trial and error. Many Gen Eders are afraid of failure and are ill prepared to try new things. This makes sense when you consider that for much of their lives, their parents would do things for them. Interestingly enough, they do prefer to work independently.

One can only assume that this is due to the model their parents gave them. As Gen Edge enters the workforce, they may start by asking for more support or to be shown how, “just one more time.” Ultimately, they do want to do it on their own. Perhaps managers might increase Gen Edges learning curve by putting a proverbial “latch key” around their necks and saying, “let yourself in, I trust you”.

What Was NOT Done

One of my favorite characteristics about human beings is our desire to connect the dots, fill in the space, solve a puzzle or finish what was left undone. Where Gen X fell short in our youth, Gen Edge is standing tall in theirs.

It is hard to say exactly what created such a clique mindset for teenagers in the 80’s, but there is ample evidence that we struggled with it. So many of the classic movies from that time period told a story of the outsider who went in search of acceptance from the “in crowd”. Karate Kid, Pretty in Pink, Footloose, The Breakfast Club, Back to the Future, Goonies, Weird Science, Can’t Buy me Love, 16 Candles instructed a generation of young Xers that everyone should be accepted and seen as equals. Never the less, we struggled to act on it and continued to segment ourselves into “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, [party girls], bloods, wastoids, and dweebies.” (Can you guess what movie this quote is from?)

Here is where I am proud to say that our children have rebelled against our fears of the unfamiliar and are doing a better job of connecting the dots across our humanity. Rather than cautiously resisting the new kid, the outsider or the odd ball, they eagerly embrace various personalities, interests and outlooks on life. Where as Gen X might have attempted to be “color blind” and ignore our differences, Gen Edge is proving to be “color considerate” by seeing our differences as equally important pieces necessary to the constructive mosaic of life.

One quantifiable example of where we at BridgeWorks have just noted this is in the way Gen Edge perceives gender. In the following survey results, you will see that Gen Edge women feel they are statistically as likely to succeed as Gen Edge Men. Further, as a generation, they want to see more women in leadership positions than even the Millennials we surveyed.

The parent child relationship has always been a constant story of accepting, rejecting or advancing family values throughout human history. But whether pushing away from or pulling more toward a set of principles established by their parents, one thing is certain, the next generation is always in motion.