Christa Otteson isn’t ranting, exactly. But the 40-year-old mother of two is tired of feeling left out.
She’s tired of baby boomers “holding court” at the top of organizations and not giving younger people with new ideas a shot. She’s tired of the fuss being made over millennials and their expensive college degrees, when she and her friends are staring down $50,000 or more in student loans.
“I am constantly hearing comparisons in the media between boomers and millennials,” said Otteson, “and our generation seems to be left out of the discourse.”
Otteson is part of a frustrated group of 34- to 49-year olds who should be in the prime of their lives. Instead, the cohort known as Generation X is finding that advertisers, retailers, HR managers and even city planners see them, in the words of one Twin Cities housing developer, as “inconsequential.”
This feeling is driven partly by their lack of numerical clout.
Born between 1965 and 1980, Generation X has about 65 million members nationwide. But they are flanked on either side by boisterous behemoths — 77 million baby boomers and an even bigger wave of 83 million millennials, those born after 1980.
“Gen Xers had about three years in the sun of marketers,” scoffed Lynn Franz, a Gen Xer who knows firsthand. She works for the Mithun ad agency in Minneapolis, and rarely hears clients interested in reaching people her age.
“Baby boomers had, what, 20 years of attention? And now we’ll be hearing about millennials for the next 20? It’s a very middle-child mind-set.”
This is the generation that grew up with the highest divorce rate in history, whose sexual awakening was tainted by fears of AIDS and who have soldiered through three recessions. They bought houses at the top of the market, and when the bottom fell out, had the highest percentage of underwater mortgages.
Gen Xers’ worklife has been defined by corporate downsizing and massive layoffs. Many returned to school, making them among the most well-educated group. But with mounds of college debt and tenuous job prospects, large numbers delayed parenthood.
No wonder they feel put upon.
“They’re in a tough slog, the tough middle innings of life,” said Paul Taylor, a senior fellow with the Pew Research Center. “But you have the impression that their generational persona is, ‘We will get on with it. We’ll figure it out.’ ”
In a report earlier this year, Taylor anointed Generation X as “America’s neglected middle child,” concluding that the Xers are cemented between boomers and millennials across a dozen economic, demographic, political and social measures.
Politically, they fall between more conservative baby boomers and more liberal millennials. They take the comparative middle view on immigration, gay marriage and the role of government. Gen Xers are even in the middle when it comes to how many Facebook friends they have.
“We bear the brunt of every tax increase and every benefit cut, and we see no end in sight to either trend,” said Kent Kaiser, 48, of St. Paul. “But we don’t complain like the boomer ‘me’ generation or the millennials, who are so self-absorbed and entitled.”
Without a squeaky wheel advocating for their generation, “politicians don’t focus on us at all,” Kaiser said. “My sense is that most people in my age range would just love it if the government would stop ‘doing stuff’ and just leave us alone.”
Theirs isn’t the first to be overlooked. Ernest Hemingway wrote of a “lost generation” that came of age during World War I and emerged disoriented and directionless — F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding.
Members of the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945, were cuffed by the dark tunnel of the Great Depression. They struggled to break out against the halo of the heroic Greatest Generation, whose deeds during World War II united a nation. Even the defining battle of their time — the Korean War — is sometimes called “the forgotten war.”
Now in middle age, Gen Xers have outgrown the slacker label that was foisted on them by career-focused and company loyalist baby boomers.
Despite reeling from the dot.com bust, the post-Sept. 11 downturn and the Great Recession, older Xers were too self-reliant to boomerang back home.
They were the latchkey kids, who came home from school, fixed a snack and settled in with “Electric Company.” As adults, they remain skeptical of institutions — marriage, government, corporate America and mainstream medicine. Nearly four in 10 identify themselves as political independents.
“We watched that whole ideal of the classic nuclear family disintegrate before our eyes as children,” said Jacquie Fuller, 40, who hosts the Xer-centric nostalgia radio show “Teenage Kicks” on 89.3 The Current. “But because we saw that glimpse of it, there’s still that striving for it. There’s a constant comparison of, ‘Well, my parents had a house by this age, why don’t I?’ Or ‘My dad was promoted to this level, why am I not there yet?’ ”
Poorer than their parents
Gen Xers are measurably more pessimistic than boomers or millennials that they’ll have enough money to retire, according to Pew research.
It’s not their imagination. Just 36 percent of Gen Xers have exceeded their parents’ wealth at the same age.
Weighed down by college debt, plummeting home values and stagnating wages over the past decade, little is left for savings. While younger millennials may choose not to save, Xers are raising families or setting up homes, and don’t have that luxury. Achieving a middle-class lifestyle requires two incomes.
That rings true for Otteson.
When she looks at her parents’ life — her dad was a truck driver, her mother worked at a state park and neither went to college — Otteson is certain they are more financially set than she and her husband will ever be.
“And we both have graduate degrees,” she said. “We feel like we’ve done all the right things, but financially the prospects just aren’t that great for my generation.”
A few years ago, with her second child on the way, she and her husband sold their small 900-square-foot house in Minneapolis and returned to her hometown of New London, about 100 miles west of the Twin Cities, where housing is more affordable.
Otteson started a leadership consulting firm, Vela Strategy Group, to have more influence on the workplace.
“We get this flak from jumping around and moving from one organization to another, but it’s probably connected to the fact that we can’t make an imprint,” Otteson said.
She — like millions of other Gen Xers — is waiting for her chance.
“There’s this great opportunity coming as a big generational transfer — whether it’s Gen Xers or millennials — where the old workplace roles have to be replaced. But the boomers need to release their generational stranglehold first.”