The Gen X-istential Crisis

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

Malcolm X

But many Gen Xers seem reluctant to let go of the reins and leave the workforce. Surveys show we’re pushing back retirement and clinging to our careers more than prior generations. “They’ll pry my job from my cold dead fingers” appears to be a motto among my peers.

What explains this phenomenon? Why are so many Gen Xers afraid to retire?

In my view, the apprehension stems from one core underlying fear: we’re anxious about what will happen when we hand the world over to younger generations. The prospect fills us with dread.

It’s not necessarily that we think poorly of young people today. Every generation has strengths and weaknesses. But we can’t help looking around and questioning if millennials and Gen Z are ready to take the baton.

Will they run the world responsibly when we’re out of the picture? Can we trust them to steer society in a positive direction? The jury is still out in the minds of many Gen Xers.

Let me elaborate on a few key sources of our generational angst:

1. Perceived lack of basic life skills

Gen Xers grew up in an analog world. We did math homework without calculators. We navigated using paper maps. We learned skills like cooking, sewing, automotive repair.

But younger generations have been raised in a hyper-digital environment. Basic life competencies like mental math, map reading, writing professional emails, focusing deeply on tasks—these seem to be eroding.

Will kids be helpless if their devices run out of batteries? Have parenting and education failed to teach fundamental skills needed to function in the world?

For example, my goddaughter recently started college. As I was helping her set up her laptop, I asked if he had read over the PDF manual. She asked in total seriousness: “What’s a PDF file?” How do you get into college today not knowing what a PDF is? To many Gen Xers, this signals a worrisome decline in basic tech literacy and problem-solving abilities we took for granted.

2. Perceived lack of work ethic

Younger workers are increasingly accused of “quiet quitting”—doing the bare minimum required to not get fired while disengaging and coasting at work. For Gen X, this is anathema to our culture of grit, loyalty, and determination.

We believe in finding purpose and fulfillment through hard work. So youth attitudes of apathy and entitlement are disconcerting.

When I think back on my first jobs mowing lawns, washing dishes, working retail, I gave 100% effort even when tasks were menial. Being a diligent worker was a point of generational pride. Are those values disappearing?

3. Perceived lack of maturity and seriousness

From TikTok resumes to lax professionalism standards, Gen X tends to see younger cohorts as more frivolous and immature than when we were the up-and-comers.

The prevalence of goofy memes and viral stunts over disciplined achievement on social platforms adds to our angst. Is this the generation that will lead our companies, institutions and civic life? We have our doubts.

When I see a 22-year-old applying for a management job at a prestigious company by submitting a video of themselves dancing badly to a Drake song, I shake my head thinking “Do we want these folks running the world someday?”

4. Perceived lack of patience and resilience

Technology breeds impatience. Younger folks expect instant answers and gratification in a way older generations do not. When they hit obstacles, their tendency is often to give up rather than persevere.

But life is messy and complicated. Solving real problems requires grit and determination. Quitting is not an option if you want to change the world for the better.

Can coddled, entitled youth toughen up in time to tackle gnarly challenges like climate change, hunger, threats to democracy? Gen Xers are skeptical.

5. Nostalgic attachment to our generational legacy

Let’s be honest – we Gen Xers are a prideful bunch. We take credit for pioneering the digital age and reinventing work culture. We broke barriers, sparked progress.

So the thought of subsequent generations undoing “all we’ve accomplished” is scary. Our egos are tied up in leaving a positive legacy.

If everything goes to hell when we retire, what does that say about our life’s work? We want to think we had a net positive impact, not that we left the world worse off. So we cling to control.

What can Gen X do to retire more peacefully?

Look, I get it. Handing over the future – our life’s work – to a generation we have doubts about is terrifying for Gen Xers. But resisting retirement is only a temporary patch. Father Time is undefeated.

The reality is like it or not, the baton will get passed. No generation retains control forever. So what can we do to retire with more serenity and optimism about what comes next?

1. Become mentors

Rather than just complaining about “young people today,” invest time mentoring promising younger workers. Share your knowledge and experience. Teach them the skills and mindsets you cultivated over decades of work. Help prepare them consciously.

Doing so directly improves the capabilities of those inheriting the world. And it allows you to retire knowing you did your part to develop good successors.

2. Document what you know

Don’t let your hard-earned institutional knowledge disappear when you walk out the door. Take time while still working to record manuals, how-to guides, wikis capturing all that workplace intelligence you possess.

Make things as turnkey as possible for the next person. You’ll retire reassured that your expertise won’t vanish.

3. Allow younger leaders to take the reins

Before retirement, start relinquishing control and allowing younger workers to make decisions. Even if you see them making some mistakes, allow them to learn through experience like you did. Providing guidance is fine but avoid commandeering.

Empowering successors eases the later transition of power. And young leaders may impress you with their growth.

4. Transfer knowledge collaboratively over time

Rather than just having a final hand-off right when you retire, begin the knowledge transfer process gradually years in advance. Have your replacement shadow you and collaborate on projects where you co-lead and co-decide.

Slowly integrating your successor helps you evaluate and develop them hands-on. It makes the eventual changing of the guard less abrupt.

5. Cultivate optimism about the future

A pessimistic, glass-half-empty view of younger cohorts becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Make an effort to see the talents and potential of new generations. There are always positives if you look.

Approach mentoring and succession from an empowering, hopeful mindset. Believe the kids will be alright, and do your part to make it so.

“The future depends on what you do today.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The bottom line

To summarize, many Gen Xers are anxious about retiring and handing over the reins. But resisting the inevitable is futile. With purposeful mentorship and preparation, we can retire with satisfaction knowing we did our best to equip and empower future leaders.

The world moves on. No generation can hold back time. We have to trust in the promise of those who come after us. The kids will be alright. Our legacy is secure. There is so much to look forward to in retirement. Onward!

So what do you think? How are you feeling about retirement and the next generation taking over? I welcome perspectives from Gen Xers and others. Let’s have a constructive dialogue!

October 11, 2023

Marcus Dickinson

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