Generation X: The Transitional Generation of Technical Communication

By Danielle M. Villegas | STC Member

Generation X has often had a less than desirable reputation over the decades. As a member of this generation, I’ve never understood this mentality. Sure, we were originally considered spoiled, teenage slackers as depicted in John Hughes’ films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club. We were also portrayed to be like the young professionals Chandler, Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey of the television show Friends or The Brat Pack in St. Elmo’s Fire. However, we’ve had plenty of time to grow up. Now that this generation is hitting middle age and makes up 60% of the workforce, we’re a demographic that is still ignored by marketers—somehow maligned again.

What seems to be overlooked is that Generation X has been an important part of how our society has formed as a digital society. Generation X has been a transitional generation. We came of age during a time known as “the decade of excess” when the economy soared, and the Cold War ended. We challenged our minds with Rubik’s Cubes, and were the first gamers obsessed with our Atari 2600 consoles, playing Pac Man, Donkey Kong, and Asteroids for hours at a time. MTV started a media revolution by playing videos on a television channel twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, which we devoured, and cable television as a medium was starting to take off. VHS was the video format which allowed us to record our favorite television programs or watch our favorite movies over and over. CDs were revolutionary technology that improved the sound and quality of our music, if we weren’t busy listening to homemade mix-tapes/cassettes on our Walkmans or boom boxes. We were the first generation to be latchkey kids due to high divorce rates taking hold and more households having both parents working full time. As the first generation to own personal computers, we were also the first to conquer meeting people and socializing on the Web long before social media took off, and even took on online dating before Match.com or eHarmony. We were the first to scramble to solve the global problems related to Y2K.

Professionally, Generation X has experienced many challenges to get to where they are today. After all, we were the first generation that was not expected to do better than their parents. Even so, Elissa Collier summed up the positive attributes of this generation by saying,

“[Generation X possesses] an entrepreneurial spirit, a do-it-yourself attitude and, in contrast to the generations before them, embrace change in the workplace. They are career-oriented but place a strong emphasis on family time and strive for a good work-life balance. They enjoy freedom and autonomy—they work to live rather than live to work, which is often frowned upon as slack and difficult to manage by the Boomers, who prefer to do the long hours. A flexible workplace is a must for a Gen X-er and they value constructive feedback—which both need to be taken into consideration when managing Gen X.

Gen X-ers are seen to be in the best position in the job market at the moment as they are set to step up to the plate and fill the leadership roles when the boomers retire. Where boomers have the experience, Gen X-ers also have the qualifications to go with it. Brought up in an era of technological and social change, Gen-X is tech-savvy and open to change. They possess a different work ethic to the boomers—Gen X thrives on diversity, challenge, responsibility, honesty and creative input, compared to the boomers’ preference for a more rigid, work-centric approach” (Collier 2012).

I don’t think I could’ve phrased it better myself. It was really out of necessity that we developed this generational personality, and it’s not something that has really changed much over the years.

I talked with several other technical communicators of my generation to see if they had similar experiences as they grew their technical communications careers. It was interesting that, even though we came of age in different parts of the United States and arrived at technical communication at different points in our lives, we had similar experiences overall. Their feedback to me also pointed out how much has changed since we were the same age as the current Generation Y/Millennials.

We were the first generation where there wasn’t a sense that you could start at a company and be there for your entire career—it’s always been a “fend for yourself” atmosphere for our generation. We’re innovative in our own way, and because we were the transitional generation, we got the short end of the stick.

The job market during the Generation X formative professional years could be difficult, but they paved the way for what Generation Y has taken for granted. Our early professional years saw more job layoffs, the rise and fall of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, sexual and racial discrimination, unequal pay for equal work, and the squeezing out of women in STEM-related careers. Even when job searching, drug testing, initial telephone interviews, “temp to perm” employment were practically unheard of. Contract work was rare—you were always a direct hire until there was a layoff due to downsizing. The concept of working for one company for your entire career was gone by the time we became professionals. If we wanted to make any professional progress in our careers or wanted to have any sense of job security, we had to jump around from job to job, as we had no support from managers or mentors to help us get a leg up in our careers. We have had to fend for ourselves to not stay stagnant in our jobs.

We lived in an age when people worked in the office every day, side by side with other technical writers or documentation contributors. If you needed to find out more information about something, that person was most likely only a few steps from your desk. For us, working globally initially meant long distance phone calls with documents sent on a fax machine to initiate the global reach we know today through email, instant messaging, and teleconferencing. Telecommuting was not really an option, because for much of our careers, there were no VPN connections until the Internet truly took off.

However, in our favor, because we were the first to start adopting digital content, this made the transition into the digital age much easier for us. Boomers invented digital; Millennials own digital; we bridged the gap between those points, and still do. We were first ones to truly adopt digital. We were the young whippersnappers to take it on and do something with it, and help the transition from paper to digital. We were taught in both the old ways of doing business, and we helped create the new ways of doing business. At the time we were young adults, you didn’t need a degree specifically in technical communication or a computer science degree of any kind to get into the field. Most of us came with degrees in various humanities subjects, such as history, journalism, or English. Being an end-user, or even someone with an aptitude in adaption to new technology, was plenty to get a good job. We documented operating systems as early as Windows 3.11 and networks, and helped companies transition from paper-based documentation to evolving digital platforms. We helped to usher in the dot-com age, being the first to consistently work in Web-based platforms, and again, bringing documentation and content to Web-based platforms, including mobile.

We also experienced a time when employers, eager to keep up with new technologies and not fall behind, were willing to teach our generation the basics of HTML, XML, CSS, JavaScript, and DITA to be able to work with new ways that the Web was enabling us to document our content at a global level. Instead of writing English-centric content, we learned to write content that could easily be translated and localized to a variety of global locations. Again, our ability to adapt and our “can-do” attitude allowed our generation to push through this rapid technical evolution that’s happened in a mere twenty to thirty years.

Although we have a lot of good qualities working for us, we have now hit a time in our lives when we’re starting to hit some obstacles in our careers. For those of us who came to technical communication later in our careers, we found that we really couldn’t break into the field or have any credibility unless we had a technical communication credential of some sort, such as a Master’s degree, graduate certificate, or other certification credential. We’ve also found that unless you have been trained in more advanced programming codes and have many years of experience, finding a job is a lot harder. It used to be that having experience and versatile skills were an asset for Generation X, but now it seems to be working against us.

The biggest problem Generation X seems to have in the technical communication field right now—almost universally agreed upon when talking to my peers—is ageism. More and more companies seem to be edging out the experienced, tech-adaptable, practical, self-managing, and hard-working people of Generation X in favor of the less experienced but digital natives, Generation Y. Generation Y, being younger, is “cheaper” in terms of financial compensation, and they are easily distracted by perks like free food and snacks, well-paying internships, transportation to work provided by the company, free gym passes, and the ability to work from home. Yet they also tend to have more difficulty with self-managing, and need more challenges and direction to stay motivated. Generation X wouldn’t mind all of those perks, too, but ultimately, as mentioned earlier, we’re a generation that’s used to instability, so we look for longevity, not empty promises of how a company will get bigger and better. (We already did that during the dot-com boom of the 1990s.) We’re looking for benefits that will enhance the balance between our home and work lives. We’re looking for good pay that’s fair compensation for the hard work and experience we’ve gained over the years. We’re also looking for the same opportunities to learn new technology that we had when we were younger instead of being shut out. We are used to learning ever-changing tools to get our jobs done, whether for writing, managing data or content, or creating graphics. We didn’t have help-authoring tools when we started, like Generation Y has now. We learned everything from the ground up, so we can learn tools that are more automated now. And yet, we are shut out, and not given the opportunity to grow and learn.

Generation X still has at least another 20 to 25 years left in our working careers—perhaps more as retirement age requirements change. That’s a long time! There is certainly room for all of us to work together, but to cater only to Millennials doesn’t seem to make much sense. Generation X has the knowledge and experience to understand what it takes to build things from the bottom up, and the self-reliance to make things happen. We were writing for mobile before Generation Y got their first mobile phones or tablets. Sure, there are deficits in some of our backgrounds because we had to be jacks of all trades, but from an all-around perspective, Generation X can’t be beat. While Generation Y might have better skills for working in open rooms and team building, Generation X knows how to focus and work alone when needed. We have more versatility that’s not as appreciated now as it was earlier in our careers.

We know how to help others, and we are willing to do so. We know what to do, and we know how to create results. We know how to seek out resources beyond looking something up on Google, such as reaching out to STC or, heck, going to a library! We represent more than the majority of the workforce out there, so with all these skills and experiences, we are a resource and an asset that should not be ignored.

I promise you that a member of Generation X, no matter how far in his or her career, has a solid work ethic that is based on knowledge, innovation, and flexibility that will transcend anything a Baby Boomer or Millennial can offer.

Special thanks to Nathaniel Lim, Cindy Pao, Yvonne Wade Sanchez, Rachel Houghton, and Ed Marsh for their contributions to this article.

References

Collier, Elissa. 2012. Workplace Warfare: Baby Boomers, Gen X And Gen Y. Career FAQs: Courses & Career Resources. Accessed 7 August 2015. www.careerfaqs.com.au/news/news-and-views/workplace-warfare-baby-boomers-gen-x-and-gen-y/.

Generational Differences Chart. Accessed 8 August 2016. www.wmfc.org/uploads/GenerationalDifferencesChart.pdf.

Keseric, Peter. 6 Jan 2015. Gen Xers: Skills, Strengths, and Shortcomings. ERE Media/ERE: Recruiting Intelligence. Accessed 8 August 2016. www.eremedia.com/ere/gen-xers-skills-strengths-and-shortcomings/.

White, Doug, and Polly White. 22 Dec 2014. What to Expect From Gen-X and Millennial Employees. Entrepreneur.com. Accessed 8 August 2016. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/240556.

DANIELLE M. VILLEGAS is a technical communicator who has most recently worked at the International Rescue Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, and BASF North America, with a background in content strategy, Web content management, UX/UI strategy, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communication world for her blog, TechCommGeekMom.com, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She is currently the vice president of the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter, as well as co-conference chair for the STC-PMC’s CONDUIT conference. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/daniellemvillegas, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog.

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