Gen X Women: Flirting with Forty


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Over the last few years, the media’s obsession with aging Boomers and techno-savvy Millennials has left Generation X out in the cold. This cohort—born between 1965 and 1977—has been overlooked as a generation with its own issues and challenges. What the media is missing is the fact that Xers are paving a new path as they edge toward middle age.

In this presentation deck, you’ll find new data on the attitudes and behaviors of Gen X women relative to their Millennial and Boomer counterparts when it comes to technology, finances, marriage, motherhood, beauty, and health and wellness.

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  • Good morning. As the title of my presentation implies, I’m going to speak about Generation X as they approach or pass the 40 milestone. Focusing specifically today on the women of Gen X—looking at them from a professional, technological, financial, personal, aesthetic, philosophical, and marketing standpoint. But before we dive into those specifics, I’d like to offer you some insight into Generation X as a whole.   If any of you are members of Gen X, as I am, you may find yourself smiling and nodding in knowing agreement at times. And shifting uncomfortably in your seats, thinking “That is so not me!” at other times.   Which leads me to a disclaimer: Whenever there is talk of any generation, there are inevitably going to be generalizations. It’s just a matter of course: It’s how we organize our world. So bear with me …  
  •   Because you’ll find that occasionally the descriptors attached to a generation will devolve into eye-rolling clichés, as with a few of the ones you will find here about Gen X.   We were alienated and individualistic as we came of age, for instance.   [OH, another disclaimer: I am phrasing this in terms of “we” as I am one of the lucky 45 million Americans who are part of this great generation].   Back to descriptors: In our young adulthood, we were cynical slackers with a penchant for grunge and an urge to be unique. And as we enter midlife—and really, what is midlife these days?—we’re described as pragmatic yet adventurous.   The experts have had a hard time attaching dates to Gen X. Maybe it’s those born 1965-78? Or 1960-80?   For the sake of this presentation, we’re going to stick with Gen X as those born between 1965 and 1977.  
  •   During our lifetime we’ve experienced Ronald Reagan and everything that went along with his two-term administration (his Morning in America, Reaganomics, Iran Contra and the assassination attempt). We’ve lived through the Miracle on Ice, the Mount St. Helens Eruption, the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Explosion and 1987’s Black Monday. We witnessed the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the 1989 San Francisco Earthquake.  
  • And then there are the events—so cataclysmic and impressionable—that despite how young or old we were when they took place, we can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when they happened. Like the Challenger Explosion of 1986. And, of course, the 9/11 attacks.   On a brighter note, a significant number of Gen X-ers identify the election of the first African American president, as a new symbol of hope, unity and the making of a better world. No matter how faint or vivid these memories are for us, they have all shaped the times and the America we grew up in, and as a result, they have shaped us.
  •   And let’s not forget the pop culture that we were teethed on.   We were the MTV generation. And thanks to MTV and its Real World, we were the first modern-day reality TV generation. Remember Puck, anyone?   In the 80s, “Who Shot JR?” became a part of our pop-culture parlance. E.T. Phoned Home. And Indiana Jones hit theaters for the first time.   We got our laughs from sitcoms like Cheers and The Cosby Show. And got our game on playing Pac-Man and Tetris.   We cuddled Care Bears, wore High-Top Shoes and tried to master the Rubic’s Cube.   We saw the assassination of 60s legend, John Lennon, as well as the rise and recent passing of our own music icon Michael Jackson.   We learned how to Flashdance and Dirty Dance. And watched one formulaic Brat Pack movie after another.   As we got older, Reality Bit. Nirvana brought us “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And our shock-and-awe thresholds rose to new highs, thanks to Beavis, Butthead and Rodman.
  • Today, our pop culture role models range from Angelia Jolie to Jennifer Aniston to Drew Barrymore , Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts.  
  •   We were the Lost Generation.   As the leading-edge of Gen X hit their mid- to early-20s, this 1990 cover of Time magazine said it all when it asked: “Laid-back, late-blooming or just lost?”  
  • And this stigma still sticks with us somewhat today. Check out this quote from Jeff Gordinier, Details Editor-at-Large and author of X Saves the World: “We hear plenty about people in their teens and twenties, and even more about people in their fifties, but the stodgy old species known as the thirtysomething has been shuttled off, like Molly Ringwald herself, to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers.”  
  • Well, Gen X is fed up with being overlooked. And we’re fighting back. You can feel the rancor building in this Time Magazine cover—seven years after the first one about the Xers appeared: “You called us slackers. You dismissed us as Generation X. Well, move over. We’re not what you thought.”
  • The sarcasm practically oozes from this recent pro-Gen X/anti-Millennial commentary from Radar Online: “Sure, Generation X survived AIDS, Reagan, the Cold War, Tipper Gore and A Flock of Seagulls, but consider the stress of having to juggle a 30-hour work week while simultaneously maintaining Facebook, MySpace, and Flickr accounts.”
  • And here’s Jeff Gordinier weighing in again on Gen X versus the Boomers: “Boomers have always talked about bringing the world together, but the Xers really have. There are Xers out there aiming high, even changing the world, and often under the radar.”
  • Despite all of this raging against the Boomer and Millennial machine, we remain stuck in the middle (or the muddle, if you will)—in the netherworld between the Mighty Boomer Generation and the even Mightier—if some media pundits have it right—Millennial Generation.   Over the last few years, the media's obsession with aging Boomers and techno-savvy Millennials has left Generation X off the radar. What the media is missing is the fact that X-ers are paving a new path as they edge toward middle age.   In the next half hour, I will talk about how being the rebellious, at times awkward middle child has affected Gen X women from a professional, technological, financial, personal, aesthetic, philosophical, and marketing standpoint.  
  • Most of the data I will present to you today is from an online survey of 537 U.S. adults we conducted last month through JWT’s proprietary online research tool. So let’s get started …
  • Nowhere is the generational hierarchy more pronounced than it is in the workplace.
  • Gen X is stuck hopelessly (and indefinitely) in middle management—the work world’s equivalent to purgatory. With the spry, 65-is-the-new-35 Boomers not going anywhere anytime soon—especially in the face of recession and diminished 401Ks—X-ers have been left in charge of the hard-to-manage Millennials, who wear ambition on their sleeves and get lauded as tech-savvy wunderkinds by the upper ranks.   This is breeding a fight-or-flight mentality among X-ers. Some are trying, where they can, to shake up the system within the confines of their company—even teach old dogs new tricks and new dogs some old tricks. If you think about it, Gen X is uniquely positioned to combine the best of the old ways of doing things with the best of the new ways of doing things.
  • After all, we have been around long enough to experience our fair share of highs and lows; we would argue more lows than highs—but isn’t that cynical of us? Right around the time leading-edge X-ers were entering (or at least trying to enter) the work force, Black Monday in 1987 sent the market plummeting.   On the plus side, we were the biggest beneficiaries of the first dot-com boom. Some of us were so swept up in the head-West-young-woman, Gold-Rush lust that we abandoned solid, “traditional” career routes for the promise of getting in on the ground floor of an enterprise like Kozmo or   We all know how the story ends. Gen X-er’s were rendered redundant; their shares in these breathless start-ups, worthless.   Today, we find ourselves in the most uncertain economic times since the Great Depression. Though Gen X women are faring much better in the job market than their Millennial counterparts, with 4.7 percent unemployment compared to 7.3 percent unemployment among Millennials aged 20-29, Gen X is still anxious about what lies ahead. *   *Bureau of Labor Statistics. Household Data Annual Averages. Table 15, Employed persons in agriculture and related and in nonagricultural industries by age, sex, and class of worker, 2008
  • Women as a whole are faring much better than men in the job market this recession. So much so that the current economic crisis has been dubbed “mancession.” Appropriate considering that as earlier this year, 82 percent of job losses affected men.   At this rate, women are set to eclipse men as the majority of workers by this fall for the first time in U.S. history. However, the changing demographics of the American workforce is more closely linked to where job losses are being felt (unionized, blue-collar jobs dominated by men) and where the economy is growing (healthcare, education, and government—fields dominated by women).
  • No matter where we are in our careers, the working women of Gen X are seeking family-friendly work environments. Watch for more women in search of family-flexible work arrangements as the mancession leaves larger proportions of female primary breadwinners. We want to be more family-oriented and involved in our children’s lives than our parents were. Having grown up with both parents working at least part time, we don’t want to be distant or selfish parents who are consumed with our careers. Indeed, eight in ten Gen X moms told us that it was extremely important to create a family flexible work arrangement. Some, as these quotes show, are carving out those situations more successfully than others.
  • Juggling work, raising a family and finding some personal time isn’t easy To help them arrange work around life, Gen X-ers are relying heavily on technology. We found that nearly two-thirds of Gen X women agreed that technology provides the opportunity to arrange work around life rather than the other way around. Sixty-seven percent agree that “technology allows me the liberty to work whenever wherever.” And 71 percent felt technology gives them the liberty to work more independently and call their own shots.
  • So, obviously, we’re using technology to facilitate work-like balance. But how do we stack up to the Millennials in terms of our tech acumen?
  • While our mobile phone isn’t our life as it is for many Millennial women and we may not covet the latest and greatest tech gadgets and gizmos to the extent that they do, we do share a lot of the same attitudes about technology as our younger counterparts. We spend a lot of our free time online, as they do. We feel comfortable learning new technologies. And we use technology to keep in touch with friends and family who we might not otherwise.
  • We also spend our time online doing the same things as Millennials. However, we do not spend as much time, with a couple exceptions. We spend more time e-mailing than they do and ...
  • … we spend more time playing multi-player games.
  • As you saw when we looked at tech attitudes, Millennial women tend to think of their mobile phones as their life. And it shows here. They spend more time doing everything from e-mailing to social networking to looking up directions on their mobile phones than Gen X women. Sure, Millennials likely have more time to be tooling around on their mobiles. But there’s another important distinction to make: Whereas Millennials see their mobiles as fun and fashionable extensions of themselves in addition to practical devices, Gen X-ers tend to be more utilitarian. They use their mobile devices to navigate and organize their world—get done what they need to get done. In this way, their mobile is a life-management device.
  • And what of us from a financial standpoint? Again, when it comes to finances, we’re stuck in this weird middle place.
  •   We’ve been called Generation Broke. We’re seeing a portion of our paychecks go to ensure that Boomers have a happy and healthy retirement. Another portion to cover our children’s skyrocketing school costs. What’s left barely takes care of our expenses.   Sure, past generations have been in this stressful position too, but ours is arguably even more precarious.  
  • Interestingly, Gen X women share the same financial concerns that Boomers and Millennials have. While not as many Gen X women worry about finances on a daily basis as Millennials, a significant proportion do: nearly 60 percent. And then we’re also concerned about saving money for retirement in the same proportion as Boomers.
  • In fact, we’re fast becoming known as the sandwich generation—a title formerly reserved for the Boomer generation. Now that definition is broadening to those in their 30s and 40s with young children, aging parents and grandparents.
  • Experts anticipate that the number of adults caring for their parents and children will grow as Baby Boomers approach their golden years and their children (the Gen X-ers) replace them as caregivers. You can feel the anticipation and anxiety about those additional responsibilities building in Gen X women, who are not only concerned about the health of their parents and/or in-laws, but also the current or future cost of their care.
  • Over half of Gen X women are concerned about who will take care of their aging parents—much more so that the Millennial and Boomer Generations. And more than one third of Gen X-ers are worried about the cost associated with their parents’ care.
  • We are also worried about our children. Not only about the costs of taking care of our parents and children at the same time. But also about having to support our children past the point we’d like to.
  • It’s no wonder that we’re suffering from money-related anxiety. Just take a look at some of these figures: Three-quarters of Gen X women feel anxious about their finances. Nearly two-thirds of Gen X women worry about having enough money to make ends meet. As many as 30 percent of Gen X women say they carry a credit card balance of $2,500 or more. And about four in 10 say they've got too much debt to consider investing or saving.
  • Moving on to a more uplifting topic. So, what of our personal life? You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again …
  • We are the “Friends” generation. And I’m not talking about a sticker-book collection of Facebook Friends. I’m talking about real, interpersonal, coffee-shop, cocktail-hour friends-as-family relationships.   In our 20s, we had the intention of waiting to figure out ourselves and our careers first before we wed. The products of divorce, we didn’t take the “M” word lightly. We aspired to get it right (the first time). Meanwhile, we had our tribes to keep us warm.
  • Our generation stands out for our belief in waiting until our late 20s to mid 30s for marriage. One-third of Gen Xers think 30+ is the ideal time to get married.
  • Despite this point of view, reality tells a different story. Most Gen X women were married in their early twenties.
  • When it comes to having children, almost half of Gen X-ers think kids should come after 30.
  • But again, the reality is different: we began having kids in our early and mid- to late-20s.
  • However, there is a subset of the population who are having children later: At first blush, one in 12 women having their first child after 35 doesn’t seem all that significant. However, when you compare that to 1970 when only one in 100 women had their first child after 35, it’s rather substantial. Dr. Julia Berryman, co-author of a book about older mothers, believes that “On the whole, babies are more likely to be planned and wanted by women in their thirties.” Explaining that “the notion of sacrifice is more often talked about in younger mothers,” whereas “older mothers may want to spend more time with their children.”
  • Look for older Gen-X women who want children to consider no-longer-taboo alternatives as they approach or pass 40: from surrogacy to adoption to tapping into their reserve of frozen eggs. In fact, one third of Gen X women told us that either they themselves or their friends had considered trying non-traditional means of having a child, while only 19 percent of Boomers reported the same. 21 percent of Gen X women, for example, had considered adoption. Fourteen percent had considered in vitro fertilization and 10 percent had considered hormone injections.
  • No matter what age they have their children, Gen X women want to be more family-oriented and involved in their children’s lives than our parents were—as I pointed out in the section on family-friendly work arrangements. Many Gen X women believe that we are pragmatists when it comes to parenting.
  • When we asked Gen X women to describe their parenting style, 36 percent of respondents identified themselves as “the tell-it-like-it-is Mom,” an archetype we derived from Roseanne Barr’s character on the 1990s show Roseanne. We described the “tell-it-like-it-is Mom” as a go-with-the-flow Mom who is perfectly OK with her family’s imperfections and who is not afraid to tell them about it. Another quarter of Gen X-ers described themselves “the protective mom,” as personified by Nora Walker on Brothers and Sisters . And one in five said they were even-headed and fair, like Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show .
  • We may describe our parenting style like Roseanne’s, but you can be sure: we strive for an aesthetic that’s more on par with our role models: Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon perhaps?
  • When it comes to aesthetics, the playing field has certainly changed over the past century. And as a result, expectations for what 40 should look like have grown extremely high. Don’t get me wrong: Kate Hepburn was in fine form at 40. There were certainly some sexy 40somethings on the screen back then. But, bronzed, uber-toned, wrinkle- and blemish-free, they were not. Sure, genes play a part. As do diet and exercise.
  • But it’s not a fluke of nature that today’s 40something stars look the way they do. New anti-aging and erase-any-signs-of-aging procedures, pills and products feed this fountain-of-youth market. And it seems that this fountain of youth market is getting younger, thanks in large part to the social acceptability of cosmetic treatments.
  • How is Gen X responding? Well, we’re taking the preventive route. We’re hoping to stave off extreme anti-aging measures by employing an ounce of prevention now.   We found that 42 percent of Gen X respondents have a regular beauty regimen designed to prevent the visible signs of aging compared to 38 percent of Boomers and 32 percent of Millennials.   We are leading the charge on changing lifestyle behaviors: Wearing sun block daily. Reducing sun exposure. Seeing dermatologists at a younger age.
  • And while 37 percent of Gen Xers are open to cosmetic surgery, few reported having gone under the knife. In fact, it’s the Millennial findings here that are more stark than the ones for Gen X. It seems that Millennial women are driving the quest for ageless perfection. As you can see, they are more open to a number of treatments from teeth whitening to laser eye surgery to cosmetic surgery than any of the other generations we studied.   The acceptability of cosmetic treatments among Millennials may be a reflection of life stage and the influence of celebrity culture. Millennials are still on the quest for “perfect me” and have they have the discretionary income to try to achieve it.
  • Our concerns are not all skin deep, however. As we mark big milestones, be it at 25, 30, 40, etc., we start contemplating where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we are going.  
  • It used to be the 40s that laid claim to the clichéd midlife crisis—at least for meny anyway. But now younger people are getting in on the act. There’s the quarter-life crisis, as popularized by two twentysomethings in the early oughts when they wrote a book by that name. And then there’s the mid-life crisis that’s happening in the 30s for women. The authors of Midlife Crisis at 30 speak of women who find themselves wondering why they feel so miserable in the midst of lives that are supposedly on track.
  • You can be sure we are going to try to avoid a crisis of this sorts at all cost. And how are we doing it? By integrating mind, body and spirit. For many Gen X-ers, spirituality has become a hot pursuit. As has yoga.   Our survey found that over half of Gen X women believe in non-traditional medicines and wellness practices. Likewise, eight in ten consider having a sound body and mind key components of being healthy.
  • There is a thirst among this generation to learn how to achieve balance. Witness the popularity of Elizabeth Gilbert’s New York Times bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love.  
  • And when it comes to marketing, how does Gen X respond? What do we like? What do we reject?
  • We embrace authenticity, transparency, discovery and an acknowledgement of individuality. We reject superlatives, one-size-fits-all-messaging and me-too’ism.
  • Today, we’ve lost much of our cynical outlook on advertising. Our MRI data shows that Gen X’s skepticism has been transplanted onto Millennials. Suggesting that the rejection of advertising we showed in our 20s was a reflection of youthfulness and the questioning authority, rather than a generational trait.   Interestingly, Gen X and Millennials have comparable views of advertising on new media channels, such as the Internet and mobile phones. Again, our MRI data shows that both generations are interested in ads being sent to mobile devices. And they both find that advertising on the Internet provides useful information about bargains and meaningful information about the other people’s product use.  
  • When it comes to our shopping habits, there’s a great paradox. We want sophistication and quality. After all, we were the ones driving the sales of organics pre-recession. At the same time we want value and convenience.   We are largely responsible for the high-low craze. We trade down where we feel we can skimp on quality so we can trade up where we wouldn’t dare sacrifice superiority.
  • So, what does it all of this mean?    
  • Just because we’re only 60 percent of the size of the Boomer and Millennial generations, don’t neglect Gen X: We have significant purchasing power, and we’re exercising it. Professionally: Because we have respect for and experience in the work world of yesterday, today and tomorrow, Gen Xers are uniquely positioned to take the best of the old ways of doing things and merge them with the best of the new ways of doing things. As employers, use that to your advantage. Also, carve out truly family-friendly work environments. Technologically: For Gen X women, technology is utilitarian. The Internet and mobile phone are used to navigate and organize our busy lives. Deliver compelling life-management solutions across these platforms.
  • Financially: As a part of the Sandwich Generation, we are acutely aware of and anxious about the financial strains that lie ahead. We need to get up to speed (and fast) on how to save and invest wisely. Those financial brands that speak our language will go a long way toward building trust. Personally: While progressive in our thinking about the ideal age for marriage and motherhood, many Gen X women are still following a traditional trajectory. However, some are rewriting the rules: A 40-year-old could be mother to an infant or a kid in college. Speak to stages rather than ages. As moms, Gen Xers want to be more involved than they believe their parents were in their children’s lives. Give them the tools or the means to focus on the meaningful (quality time with family) rather than get bogged down with the banal (tedious chores).
  • Aesthetically: Unlike the Millennial generation, Gen X isn’t interested in fighting aging at any cost. Preventive measures are preferred over extreme makeovers. Innovate-innovate-innovate: In a decade or so, we will expect the anti-aging industry to have evolved to the point where no radical actions will be needed. Philosophically: It’s beyond skin deep for Gen X, who are trying to find balance. Offer us ways to integrate mind, body and spirit. From a marketing standpoint: Superlatives and one-size-fits-all messaging fall flat. Be authentic and transparent; allow us to discover and acknowledge our individuality. Play to our tendencies to flit from high to low. And reach us where we are receptive: on the Internet and mobile phones.
  • Thank you for taking the time to listen today. If there are any questions, I would be happy to answer them at this time.
  • Gen X Women: Flirting with Forty

    1. 21. Technology helps me keep in touch with friends and family who I would not speak with otherwise I am extremely comfortable with technology and can learn new technologies easily I spend a lot of my free time online I purchase technology products to help organize my life I enjoy having technology gadgets and try to have the latest as soon as they are available My mobile phone is my life
    2. 22. E-mail (personal or work) General search/browse the Internet Go to a favorite Web site Social network (i.e., Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.) News/information sites (news sites, newspaper or magazine sites, etc.) Play games Bank online/personal finance Personal use such as managing calendars, etc. Instant Messenger (i.e., AOL IM, etc.) Look up directions, an address, or contact information Research, gather information, compare prices on products Discussion groups/message boards/chat rooms (read and/or write) Blog (read)
    3. 23. Play multi-player games Watch/share video clips Download music/subscription music/listen to free streaming music Share/manage photos Purchase products Watch movies or TV shoes Blog (write or publish your own) Make phone calls via the Internet (i.e., Skype, etc.) Use Web cam Make and post video clips to social networking sites Share/manage videos Dating sites
    4. 24. E-mail (personal or work) Personal use such as managing calendars, etc. Social network (i.e., Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.) Go to a favorite Web site General search/browse the Internet News/information sites (news sites, newspaper or magazine sites, etc.) Look up directions, an address, or contact information Instant Messenger (i.e., AOL IM, etc.) Play games Bank online/personal finance Blog (read) Research, gather information, compare prices on products Share/manage photos
    5. 27. I worry about my finances on a daily basis I worry about saving money for my retirement Boomers Gen X Millennials
    6. 29. The current or future cost of my parents’/in-laws’ care The health of my parents/in-laws Boomers Gen X Millennials
    7. 30. It is/is going to be a huge financial strain on me to care for my elderly parents/in-laws I worry about the cost of putting my parents/in-laws in a nice elder care facility I worry about my parents’/in-laws’ future and who will take care of them as they age Boomers Gen X Millennials
    8. 31. I worry I will have to financially support my children well past the point I’d like to I’m going to have to make some lifestyle changes in the coming years so I can afford caring for both my children and my parents Boomers Gen X Millennials