The X Factor

There was a time in the ad business when just about every personnel conversation centered on keeping the kids happy. As hot Web startups lured away the Gen X-ers, agencies hustled to become more X-friendly, adding cappuccino machines and even generational-diversity training. Not much worked: True to their opportunistic reputation, X-ers generally jumped jobs whenever it meant more bucks.

The recession has pushed employee retention to the very bottom of any CEO’s to-do list. (Hey, most companies are paying people to leave.) Since the economy has essentially nailed Gen X’s feet to the floor, the thinking goes, who cares about catering to their needs? But agency leaders may get a rude awakening when hiring picks up. The X-ers—generally defined as those born between 1964 and 1979—are more restless, mistrustful of corporate management and easily dissatisfied with their lot than the boomers who came before them.

Bruce Tulgan, president and founder of consultancy Rainmaker Thinking in New Haven, Conn., says the most talented X-ers continue to job-hop, while many others are leaving the business or hunkering down at their desks, giving less than 100 percent until they get a chance to move on. “None of those things is good for an agency,” he says. If anything, Gen X’s “career thinking is more transactional, self-protected and short-term than ever before. The worse the recession gets, the more it cements their mind-set. They’re saying, ‘I was right to think of myself as a free agent. I can’t rely on any company to take care of me.’ “

Any generalization about such a large group is bound to be oversimplified, of course. But one thing is certain: The ad industry is uniquely dependent on the Gen X crowd. The median age in the advertising workforce is 38, two years younger than the national average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS numbers also show that 59 percent of advertising staffers are ages 25-44, vs. 50 percent of all workers. So even a little X-er unrest is bound to result in significant staffing problems.

And X-ers seem plenty restless. For one thing, the oldest are beginning to feel their age, realizing that if they don’t have an impressive title by now, they probably never will. What’s worse, while this group seemed more cynical than the Friends cast all along, the recent wave of downsizing has left them even more wary.

“Many are now in management positions, trying to do more with less and often butting heads with upper-level managers,” says Carolyn Martin, a lecturer for Rainmaker who has led generational training at below-the-line organizations such as Omnicom’s Diversified Agency Services and Ketchum. “These stars are frustrated: They know how to drive high performance, and they want to do it, but are not recognized, rewarded or encouraged when they do.”

Gen X-ers also resent work intruding too far into their home lives. While they may play along with all the overtime now, they’re generally “far less willing to make personal sacrifices than are boomers,” says J. Walker Smith, president of consultancy Yankelovich Group in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Smith, however, does not think disgruntled X-ers will leave advertising en masse, because they’re good at adapting to upheaval. “For Generation X, employment is a journey without end,” he says. “They feel more comfortable than boomers in reinventing themselves—they’re more self-reliant and more self-directed. They’re at home in an uncertain market and are going to look for a way to re-engineer opportunities for themselves right here.”

Rita Masini, 32, global director of learning and development at Ketchum in New York, agrees, saying her peers have proved themselves by working harder than ever in the wake of staffing cuts. “We’ve seen a return to commitment to the organization,” she says, albeit not motivated by any altruism but “just because they want to save their jobs.”

It’s possible, Masini admits, that a number of her fellow X-ers are “just biding their time, saying, ‘If I can’t ask for the money now, I’m going to take this for all the skill-building it provides and I’m gonna walk when it picks up.’ ” But most, she’s betting, will prove loyal: “When things do pick up, you’ll see a more committed workforce. I don’t think we’ll see these people bail.”