Book cover of The Manager's Pocket Guide to Generation X

I recently found a secondhand book called, The Manager’s Pocket Guide to Generation X, by Bruce Tulgan. The publication date was 1997 — not surprising, as the cover looked like a screenshot from one of the Health videos I watched in middle school.

Much of the book deals with misconceptions about Gen X, which at that time was entering the workforce. They were “disloyal,” “arrogant,” had “short attention spans.” These insults were all very familiar to me. Of course, I’d always known that Millennials were not the first generation to be portrayed negatively by the media. But I was still delighted to hold proof in my hands.

The author does a fair job of explaining the situation Gen X faced in the 1990s. A changing economy, more uncertainty, etc. — all of this led to a unique set of rational decisions that only seemed irrational to the older generations. And he argues that they did not deserve negative portrayals they got. In his introduction he even takes something of a stance against age segregation. “My work… is not about driving a wedge deeper between the generations… but rather about closing that gap and bringing the generations closer together for everyone’s mutual benefit.” For this reason alone, the book impressed me. It’s rare for a person in any time period to speak out against generational stereotypes.

Looking deeper, I found another point of interest: the author himself was an “Xer.” His audience, oddly enough, would have been mostly people older than himself. These were the Baby Boomers who were overwhelmingly hiring Xers in 1997.

Something about this — the fact that the author was writing about his own generation — made me feel uneasy. Maybe he can defend a generation when it’s his generation. But has he been able to keep up this commitment to foster community between the generations? Can he do it now that it’s no longer his generation that’s under the microscope?

Putting youthful idealism to the test

I looked him up, and found his most recent book, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials. I was right to feel uneasy. Thematically at least, it was the same book he’d written in the 90s, just shifted up one generation. But even the title was enough to tell me something had changed. Let’s compare this title to that of the similar book he wrote on Gen X, published in 1995:

1995: Managing Generation X

2016: Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials 

Again, both books seem to have essentially the same content. Both have sections dedicated to dispelling misconceptions about the generation in question. Why such a different tone? Why the cheap shot at Millennials? Isn’t his goal to open up communications with them?

Just so people won’t think I’m making too much of the titles, which, after all, may have just been the editor’s decision, the books themselves reflect the same change in tone. Despite its apparent similarity, the newer book has an undercurrent of disdain. Let’s compare thesis statements from each:

1997: “The new workplace bargain Xers seek… offers tangible day-to-day rewards in exchange for daily contributions of time, labor, and creativity. Management strategies must evolve to facilitate the effectiveness of today’s workers…”

2016: “The message of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy is simple: if you want high performance out of this generation, you’d better commit to high-maintenance management… They need you to guide, direct, and support them every step of the way.”

Again, we see a difference in tone. Accommodating the new generation goes from something that “must” happen, like a force of history, to a sales pitch for a sports car. It may be high maintenance, but it’s also high performance.

In Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, he goes on to list a number of other tips for managers. Most of these seem to be the same as they were for his generation, though a few are new and bizarre. Perhaps the most troubling is something called “‘in loco parentis’ management,” which invites managers to think of their employees as though they were children. I could not find anything like this in his advice on Gen X.

What has changed?

Have young people really become more like sports cars? Or has the author, in spite of his expertise, allowed his irrational side to fall for the media’s story? Has he developed a subconscious disdain for Millennials that he could never have felt for his own generation? It’s hard to say. All we can know for sure is that something has changed.

Perhaps the saddest loss during that time period was the author’s original goal of unity: “My work… is not about driving a wedge deeper between the generations… but rather about closing that gap and bringing the generations closer together for everyone’s mutual benefit.” His new book does not convey this mission. It’s sheer irony that it claims to teach people how to market to and communicate with Millennials. Entire chapters deal with “sending the right message.” And yet the title alone proves that when it comes down to it, Millennials are the only ones to whom he is truly unconcerned with “sending the right message.”

Of course, we have to admit that he made a bold promise in 1997: to bring the generations closer together. In many ways, generations are not like the categories of “young” and “old.” If today, I want to be friends with people of all ages, how can I promise that I will always feel the same way? Generations shift, and I myself may change, until one day the people belonging to the groups “young” and “old” are no longer the friends I once knew. Maybe the author has found himself in this position. He may still be working to close the generation gap — or at least saying so in order to save face — and yet maybe his heart isn’t in it anymore. It takes an extraordinary person to keep the kind of promise he made in 1997, and to truly live by it for so long. And unfortunately for him, he’s right about one thing: not everyone gets a trophy.