Date posted: 24/11/2017 7 min read

A Generation X perspective

For generation X, personal reinvention and upskilling have become a normal part of everyday working life. Where to next?

In Brief

  • With skills, endurance and discipline, Gen X is the most entrepreneurial in history and stands out in emotional intelligence, a real asset in the age of robots.
  • Digital upskilling, co-working hubs, data use and crowdfunding are necessary new areas for workers and leaders alike.
  • A whole new way of engaging Gen X talent is emerging in professional services.

By Rohini Kappadath 

We stand on the brink of a technology revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is evolving at an exponential pace and impacts entire systems of production, management and governance, disrupting almost every industry in every country. Already in business, we are living through a fundamental transformation in the way we work and how we create value for our customers.

Netflix, the largest movie house, owns no cinemas. Apple and Google, the largest software vendors, don’t write the apps. Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no taxis. Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Skype and WeChat, the largest phone companies, own no telecoms infrastructure. Facebook, the largest media owners, create no content and SocietyOne the fastest-growing bank, has no actual money. 

Who are Generation X?

Generation X is not clearly defined but can broadly be considered as people born from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. It is preceded by baby boomers and followed by generation Y (aka millennials). Early representations of generation X portrayed them as a “slacker” generation of MTV-watching cynics.

Today, characteristics associated with generation X include independence, resourcefulness, self-motivation, adaptability, cynicism, pragmatism, skepticism of authority, and as seeking a work life balance.

US demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe describe Generation X as the most entrepreneurial generation in history – a suggestion backed up by research from the Sage Group in 2015, which found members of generation X launched 55% of all new businesses in North America that year.

Generation X: The CEOs

In conversations with CEOs and senior business executives, a common theme that emerges is that the acceleration of innovation and the velocity of disruption are hard to comprehend or anticipate, even for the best connected and informed. 

Succeeding in such a rapidly-evolving environment is only possible by challenging conventional ways of operating and maintaining a mindset of relentless reinvention. CEOs are re-examining their business in four key areas — customer experience, product enhancement, collaborative innovation and organisational design. 

The heightened speed of obsolescence means the window of opportunity is getting shorter. The winners of tomorrow will be those with the instinct to sense, predict and deliver what their customers don’t yet know they are searching for. 

Navigating this period of digital disruption will in no small part depend on members of my generation, Generation X, the last to still hold a memory of what it meant to have a pre-digital life. A life in which important attributes of focus, discipline, patience and delayed gratification were mostly considered par for the course. 

Their mindset of reinvention and innovation is far from utopian
Rohini Kappadath Senior Adviser - India Business Practice, KPMG 

These are the very same attributes that will hold leaders of this generation in good stead in times of turbulence in the future. 

Generation X, born somewhere in between the 1960s and 1980s, has the skill, endurance and discipline needed to thrive in this age of intense technological disruption. 

Their mindset of reinvention and innovation is far from utopian and is steeped more in the conventional wisdom of the past. They have understood that the ability to disrupt a market, or to innovate within the organisation’s established structures, is closely linked to an understanding of emerging technologies and their potential application.  

As a result, the Generation X response to this challenge has been through a deep focus on upskilling, a discipline that is fast proving to be core to their success, longevity and reinvention.

Generation X: The small business owners

In conversations with various Generation X small business owners, a common view emerges. Their investment in digital skills is considered vital and an opportunity to find new revenue streams and innovate, rather than as an overhead cost. 

Some see this as a necessary defence against the transforming digital commerce landscape, the heightened state of competition and fast-evolving consumer preferences. Many take the view that standing still is no longer an option and is a sure path to obsolescence. 

It comes as no surprise that relentless reinvention is fast becoming the norm and is not the domain of a progressive few. This mindset requires constant vigilance around the levers of the business model to ensure profitability and opportunities for growth. It means working beyond well-trodden paths and handling the necessary financing, uptake, adoption and commercialisation of value propositions.

Generation X has a trifecta of skills, endurance and discipline to develop and execute business models, taking them from good ideas to strong commercial assets. 

The digital revolution allows us to forge new types of relationships with customers, where technology is not only a business enabler but becomes an integral part of the way customers interact with the brand. Digital literacy and competency has become a core business skill, like communication. 

Driving business growth in a digital world requires new knowledge that is shared just-in-time between business owners and participants within the broader ecosystem. The pace of change has made the informal exchange of knowledge within community groups aligned around a common purpose, such as co-working spaces and hubs, far more valuable than the more formal, slow-to-adapt mechanisms of teaching and learning.

Successful Generation X business owners are now actively seeking answers to questions through attendance at various after hours networking events – questions such as how to activate a social media campaign to drive new customers? Or how to increase the conversion rate, or who can help develop a crowdfunding campaign?

Tech-savvy business operators are finding new ways to use data to drive decisions. These include harnessing the power of advanced analytics to understand and predict customer behaviour and using these insights to activate the direction of product development. And, finding ways to leverage artificial intelligence to redesign operations and create unique customer experiences.

Generation X: The professionals

As we head further into the age of digital disruption and rapid automation, it is becoming clearer that the jobs of the future will require individuals to possess a broad range of transferable skills. 

The workforce of the future will be differentiated through the more human skills of creativity, problem solving, empathy, compassion and critical thinking. Generation X stands out in its emotional intelligence, a significant asset in the age of robots. 

A growing trend among highly skilled Generation X professionals is establishing portfolio careers that offer flexibility and freedom to pursue breakthrough innovations on the side. Large organisations seeking to transform and inject creativity, innovation and entrepreneurialism in their workforce are also showing willingness to source top skill sets that they believe are missing in their organisation, on a contract basis. As a result, a whole new way of engaging generation X talent is emerging within the professional services sector. 

Related: Generational change in the workplace

How is generational change best managed in the c-suite? CEOs offer their experience.

Innovation today is about creating new solutions at the intersection of technologies and platforms. For example, Apple did not create the mobile, or the internet, but created the ability to bring those technologies together at the consumer level and disrupt the world.

This shift from simple digitisation to innovation based on combinations of technologies is forcing companies and professionals to re-examine the way they do business. The bottom line, however, is the same: business leaders, senior executives and small business owners across every generation need to grasp changes in their operating environment, challenge the assumptions of their executive teams, and relentlessly and continuously innovate.

Harnessing the swift, disciplined and focussed thinking capacity of generation X presents a good opportunity for organisations seeking to find fleeting new veins of gold in rapidly changing markets, in a manner that is profitable and sustainable.  

After years in the shadow of baby boomers and Generation Y, the time has come for Generation X, the silent generation of doers, taxpayers and consumers, to step forward and make their indelible mark.

Rohini Kappadath is a former senior adviser - India Business Practice, KPMG and the current General Manager at Immigration Museum.

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