The World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders (YGLs) are a group of globetrotting, independently minded, young(ish) politicians, managers, thinkers and do-gooders. What unites us is that we have advanced in our respective fields fast enough to attract some attention and that we think our world should – and can – be changed for the better. But how do we fit in with our generation more broadly? Are we backward idealists? Leading lights? Or are we just plainly representative of what is often referred to as Generation X, the people now in their late thirties and forties?
Apologies in advance: my reflections appertain to those of us who live in Europe and to some extent North America. Our YGL colleagues from other continents will have fascinating, and perhaps very different, backgrounds and outlooks.
Surveys, statistics and anecdotal evidence about Generation X add up to a grainy, somewhat blurred picture. We have tried to discard the traditional certainties and aspirations of our parents (the baby boomers) but we have not constructed a distinct new identity for our generation – unlike those born a decade or two later (the millennials, or Generation Y). Here are some stylized facts about my generation:
We are well educated
Three-quarters of us (in the OECD countries) have at least upper secondary education and a third of us have university degrees. These shares are much lower for people over 55, namely 60% and 22%, respectively. Of course, the millennials are even better educated than we are.
We have embraced technology
We were the first generation to have games consoles in our bedrooms, the internet in our college libraries and mobile phones in our rucksacks. Unlike many of the older generation, we embraced these novelties. And some of us developed them further (Google, Amazon and YouTube are Generation X inventions). But we were also the last generation that did not grow up with the internet, mobile telecommunications and social media. We will never be as tech-savvy as the millennials.
We have managed our careers
In the early 1990s, when many of us entered the labour market, unemployment rates in the United States and the European Union were just as high as they are today. Youth unemployment was lower, but not by much. My generation was probably the first where a university degree did not guarantee a job. We had to find ways to stand out, through second degrees, volunteerism or international experience. What we struggled to achieve back then has now become standard: today’s young graduates often have CVs so packed that we wonder how they fit it all in. What we have in common with the millennials is that we no longer equate career with climbing the ranks within an organization. For us, seeing our parents lose their jobs in the economic crises of the late 1970s and 1980s – despite often lifelong devotion to one employer – might have been a formative experience. For the millennials today, fitting into any kind of hierarchy seems hard. And many of them enter the world of work in an era of even greater uncertainty.
We are freer, yet feel squeezed
The jump in divorce rates in the 1970s and 1980s brought more women into the labour market. Many of them had to battle hard to get fully accepted and properly rewarded. Now most women of our generation work, and in many places the gender pay gap is narrowing or even closing. And yet we have discarded with the idea of “having it all”. In the United States, college-educated women have their first children at age 30; in some European countries, women wait on average even longer. That means that the most taxing years of raising babies and toddlers often coincide with the busiest years of parents’ careers. This is one (but only one) reason why around one-quarter of highly educated women in the United States and the United Kingdom do not have children. The “big squeeze” in the middle of life also contributes to a plunge in the level of happiness and satisfaction in people’s thirties and early forties, which is now well documented.
We are a little confused
We no longer believe that hard work and traditional families are all there is to life. We are less materialistic and donate more of our money and time to good causes. But we also crave stability. Perhaps not in the shape of lifelong employment but through stable relationships and lifestyles. We worry a lot about being poor and sick when we get older. No wonder: we are the first generation that is expected to save for our own old age while paying for our parents’ retirement (as well as our kids’ education). We are also the first generation since the Great Depression that is poorer than our parents. It is hard to find European numbers, but in the United States, the assets of Generation X are much lower than those of the baby boomers but their debts are higher. Surveys indicate that the millennials are even more independent than we are and less interested in traditional careers. As much as they want status and money, they also want opportunities to shape the world. One explanation might be that the generation that follows us has better embraced uncertainty and discarded the traditional notion that every generation must be richer than the previous one.
The picture that emerges is that Generation X is a group that is sandwiched between two distinct and in many ways diametrically opposed generations, the baby boomer and the millennials. On all sorts of measures – social attitudes, goals, skills and the awareness of hard choices – Generation X represents transition. They are the inbetweens, the middle, the not-quite-there-yets. Most of them do not even think that they are a unique generation – as opposed to both the millennials and the baby boomers who think they are very special indeed.
On all these measures, the group of World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders is closer to the millennials than to the baby boomers. We like to consider ourselves to be more idealistic, independent, tech-savvy and ready to embrace (and drive) change than the average Generation Xer. So perhaps we can consider ourselves front runners of what might well be the next “great generation”.
Author: Katinka Barysch is Director of Political Relations, Allianz SE, Germany. She is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and Global Agenda Council Member. The views expressed here are her own.
Image: LittleBits chief executive and founder, Ayah Bdeir, poses at her company’s headquarters in New York April 23, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid