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Is Gen X the Real Lost Generation?

Kimberly Palmer

In our recent coverage of the tension between 20-somethings and baby boomers, several commenters observed that the generation with the most financial frustration is, in fact, Generation X. That's the group of people currently in their 30s and 40s who are at the height of juggling family and work responsibilities.

"Much of the anger seems to be coming from Gen X," pointed out a commenter calling herself Heather.

Veronica, 28, wrote in an email that she doesn't relate to younger Millennials, who grew up with helicopter parents and material excess. "We weren't surrounded in plastic bubbles and if we had a problem with a teacher or authority figure, it was up to us to sort it out. ...Our parents smack us upside the head when we need it," she says.

In fact, Veronica says her friends resent younger 20-somethings "who don't know how to take critiques on job performance," because they've always been told that they were good at everything. While she's a few years past the traditional Gen X cut-off, she sounds more like a Gen Xer in her outlook and experience. She had a hard time finding steady employment after graduation and is saddled with hefty student loans.

Veronica sounds frustrated and perhaps even resentful of Gen Yers: "These are the helicopter kids who can't seem to understand there are consequences to their actions....and are now wreaking havoc in the workplace, when they're lucky enough to find a job and don't realize how lucky they are."

Research suggests that she's not the only one experiencing this deep frustration. The survey from the Pew Research Center that originally kicked off this conversation found a difference between younger 20-somethings and older ones: The unemployment rate was highest for 18- to 24-year-olds at 16.3 percent, but it was also higher for 25- to 29-year-olds than it was for adults of all ages (10.3 percent compared to 8.8 percent). The recession pushed down median weekly earnings 0.1 percent for both the 25- to 29-year-old bracket and the 30- to 34-year-old bracket. (Americans over age 35, on the other hand, enjoyed a 1 percent earnings growth.)

And it was Gen X that seemed to have the most self-pity. When asked whether young adults are having a tougher time in today's economy, the 35- to 49-year-olds were least likely to say "yes." In fact, that group was more likely to say that was they, themselves, who were having the tougher time.

Media reports have dubbed Generation Y the "lost generation" because of the high unemployment rates and steep student loans recent grads face. Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard, told the Associated Press, "These people will be scarred, and they will be called the 'lost generation'--in that their careers would not be the same way if we had avoided this economic disaster."

But what if Gen Y's struggles have masked another crisis in the cohort ahead of them--Gen X? Could Gen X be the real lost generation?

Fortunately for 30- and 40-somethings, many of them had found their financial and career footing before the most recent recession, which allowed them to weather the storm with at least some savings in place. Their more advanced age, though, also meant they had already taken on greater responsibilities, from parenthood to homeownership, which meant getting laid off and facing extending unemployment was more crushing that it was for a 22-year-old who could simply return to his parents' house. Gen X and Gen Y might have different problems, but they both share the sharp pain of growing older during an economic storm.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer

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