Careers: On top of the Mcjobs

To their elders, they can seem feckless slackers. But members of Generation X have only known turmoil in the job market, and they have learnt how to cope. Roger Trapp reports on a one-man mission to give the young a break
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The Independent Online
Bruce Tulgan is a man with a mission. He is fed up with the popular image of today's school and college leavers as a bunch of scruffy shirkers. Yes, that impression has been created at least in part by people of his age group making films like Slackers and Singles. But he does have a point.

After all, before becoming an in-demand consultant and author, he himself was a Wall Street lawyer and he lists among his friends investment bankers, surgeons and advertising executives. Consequently, he says, "Generation X" - as the marketing industry has dubbed those born between 1963 and 1981 - cannot be dismissed as a group of people with "short attention spans and no work ethic, dropping out of the rat race to live off of our parents or barely surviving in low-pay, low-status, short-term 'McJobs'".

While that is true for some, the vast majority are still trying to make it in mainstream companies. "The problem is that these hard-working X- ers fall victim on the job to the same 'slacker' stereotype that we see in the media. We feel misunderstood at work and often mismanaged as a result," he writes in his book Managing Generation X.

Mr Tulgan, who was in London last week to address a high-profile conference for human resources specialists, acknowledges that much of what he complains about - for example, lack of communication, too little genuine delegation, too much emphasis on time-keeping - apply to workers of all ages. "Broad trends about management cut across all age groups," he says. "Some of what I've prescribed is just good management."

Yet he insists that those problems are particularly acute for Generation X. Pointing out that such people have been raised to be independent in an environment that is characterised by immediacy, uncertainty and the swift exchange of information, he says: "So what might be good management generally is absolutely essential for managing the emerging generation."

For the moment, managers seem to be threatened by a generation whose view of life they do not understand. But Mr Tulgan urges them to adopt a different point of view.

While older workers are struggling to adapt to change, Generation X-ers have the advantage that the current age of turmoil is all that they know. Moreover, the very factors that are felt to stigmatise them could be looked at from another angle - they could be advantages in the new world.

Consequently, the disloyalty that Generation X-ers are often accused of displaying can, for example, be seen as flexibility or adaptability to change. At the same time, the independence resulting from many in the generation growing up as "latchkey kids" while both parents are at work can create the sort of self-motivated problem-solvers that companies say they need.

Indeed, Mr Tulgan goes so far as to suggest that - looked at in a positive way - the Generation X-er is the kind of worker that businesses increasingly say they are looking for.

Having written the book as "an accident", initially while completing what he describes as his "428 days on Wall Street", he has formed a consultancy, called Rainmaker, that specialises in researching the views of Generation X and helping organisations to recruit and better understand them. While the book is filled with complaints about managers drawn from interviews with about 1,000 young workers, he says he has received a good response from clients as varied as Deloitte & Touche, the international firm of accountants and management consultants, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, the fast-food operation. "Managers tend to be encouraged by the fact that the person they are looking for is right there," he says.

But it is one thing to identify the right people and quite another to keep them. Mr Tulgan believes that paying a little attention to the views distilled in the book and the researches he has carried out since can help managers to face up to the challenge of retaining stars.

Pointing out that he has been interviewing people of his age group for several years, he adds: "I say to managers, if you've ever wondered what employees whisper about over lunch I can tell you." And though the findings may surprise them he does not advocate the sort of fundamental change that has become fashionable with management consultants. Instead, he says he "offers them a nail file to make some adjustments".

Not that he is just aiming at managers. He is also targeting the new breed of workers themselves with tips for survival in the modern workplace. A new book, just completed and called Work This Way, is basically a manual on how to succeed in the "post-job era".

In the meantime, June will see the publication of The Manager's Pocket Guide to Generation X, a small volume which, among other things, describes a tool designed to help young workers to deal with a world without steady career progression. It introduces the notion of "micro-managing yourself", which fundamentally is meant to be an aid to helping them better understand their tasks and responsibilities by breaking their work into "bite-sized chunks".

The power of that, he maintains, lies in its adaptability to other aspects. Indeed, it will, he adds, "help set goals for the rest of their lives".

'Managing Generation X - How to bring out the best in young talent' by Bruce Tulgan is published by Capstone. (pounds 15.99)