X Marks This Spot?
Members of Generation X —
the “Rubik’s Cube generation”
— are not afraid of shifting around
their lives in order to achieve their ideal
livelihood. Generally, the 25- to 35-year-old
isn’t looking for jobs first and a city
culture second, but rather the other way around.
Does Grand Rapids fit the bill?
By Matthew Molter
assistant portfolio manager
Generation X: It’s growing up in the ’70s
and ’80s, working in the ’90s. Grand
Rapids: It’s not too big-city, and it’s
not too small-town. Generation X and Grand Rapids.
Is it a peaceful co-existence or oil and water?
Are Gen X-ers wary of Grand Rapids or is Grand Rapids
wary of Gen X-ers? Neither? Both?
“It’s not too big, but it’s big
enough where there is a lot of opportunity.”
Born in 1978, Jon Bull qualifies as a member of
Generation X. The generation is defined roughly
as anyone born between 1967 and 1979/1980. Bull
believes GR attracts Gen X-ers because of its many
colleges and its social attractions, particularly
Van Andel Arena.
The 2000 Census bears Bull’s theory. Grand
Rapids is 26 percent Gen X with a median age of
30.4 years, while the state of Michigan is 20.2
percent and 35.5 years respectively. The national
numbers are similar, which would seem to show Grand
Rapids as a young city.
So, it’s obvious then: If you’re a
young professional looking to move to a hot and
growing city, Grand Rapids is the place to be. Not
so fast, say others.
From an employment standpoint, Grand Rapids is
shying away from the generation, says Mike Lowe,
president and CEO of Partners in Technology, a Grand
Rapids staffing firm.
“(Gen X-ers) have to show more responsibility,”
Lowe says. “They go into an interview with
a strike against them already.”
There is a stigma attached to the generation. Contrary
to the generations that preceded them, loyalty is
not the No. 1 priority among this class of workers.
Lowe says that although loyalty used to be a staple
in the workplace, the average time of employment
at one firm has decreased to 1½ years.
“This generation sees their careers as portable,”
says Sue Simmerman, Grand Valley State University
assistant director of career services. Simmerman
has done extensive research into the changes and
differences in generations and has conducted seminars
on recruiting the different generations. Appropriately,
Simmerman compares this generation with the Rubik’s
Cube, a wildly popular puzzle in the mid-’80s.
“The Rubik’s Cube is about restructuring,”
Simmerman says. “The Gen X-ers are OK with
lateral (career) moves as long as they are constantly
developing new and updated skills.” She compares
this mentality with the Depression generation, who
in general opposed any change, and the Baby Boomers,
who saw change as acceptable as long as you were
Simmerman believes Gen X-ers bring a new set of
expectations with them: flexibility, independence,
and new and exciting responsibilities. The conflict,
she says, is that Grand Rapids will give you 9 to
5, report to one boss, and continue to improve on
your one responsibility.
Give Grand Rapids credit. Some employers tried.
Several companies went to casual dress, a staple
of the X generation. Some allowed flex time and
even telecommuting. But the economy has slowed,
the hiring has been minimized and employers no longer
have to conform. It’s an employer’s
market, not an employee’s, and companies can
Lowe sees it every day in the recruiting industry.
“Big companies that are downsizing are still
coming to me for employees,” he says. “They’re
not so much downsizing as they are downsizing the
It isn’t a mystery how the generation has
gotten to this point. Simmerman points out that
each generation has its own set of heroes. The Depression
generation saw presidents and generals as heroes,
stemming from the war effort. The Boomers saw the
Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. as heroes —
proponents of change. The X generation sees athletes
as its primary heroes. With the ever-increasing
presence of the media, this is no wonder. And when
a generation looks up to multimillion-dollar athletes
who change teams at the drop of a hat and strike
when drug-testing is suggested, who can blame a
generation for trying to succeed through change
Bill Redmond was born in 1971, making him a veteran
of the generation: “I love it (Grand Rapids).
It has a downtown atmosphere similar to that of
big cities, but without the hassle of getting around
the big city.”
Redmond says that while Grand Rapids certainly
lives up to its conservative billing, employers,
at least in part, will have to adjust to the particulars
of the newest generation of workers.
Lowe sees that change coming sooner. He says that
in four to eight months, the economy will swing
again, and employers won’t have the luxury
of being picky. They will have to accept this generation
of workers and the demands they bring with them.
But Redmond does say that his generation will have
to give a little, more as a result of natural evolution
than wilting resolve.
“Grand Rapids has changed me, made me a little
more conservative, and as our generation grows up,
they will tend to be more conservative in their
views and outlook.”
So is this small town disguised as a big town accepting
of the younger generation? Does Grand Rapids offer
enough to the 27-year-old looking to find a city
to settle down in? What it comes down to is a matter
of priority. In the eyes of a war generational or
a baby boomer, this city isn’t what most would
call Gen X friendly. The reason is that their priorities
are employment, making a good solid living for their
families. They see that employers are still conservative
and staid and they think that doesn’t match
the Gen X mentality. And it may not.
Maybe though, Gen X-ers don’t prioritize
the same way, and this could be the big difference
in generations. The 25- to 35-year-old isn’t
looking for jobs first and a city culture second,
but rather the other way around.
Simmerman says the war generation sees a career
as living, the baby boomers see it as a focus of
life, and the Gen X-ers see it as an irritant.
So the theory goes that Gen X-ers are looking for
something fun and fulfilling in a city, and the
job will follow. Grand Rapids does offer fun and
fulfillment to this generation: sports in every
part of the city, rivers and lakes for outdoor recreation,
and a downtown nightlife booming with entertainment.
There are the beaches in the summer, ski hills in
the winter. There’s good eating and a church
for every denomination. There are choices in Grand
Rapids, and choices are what this generation needs.
But what about conservativism? How will a generation
of liberals who twice voted Bill Clinton to office
survive in a Bible belt? Another trait of the generation
is that they don’t want to be labeled.
Conservative doesn’t necessarily carry the
same negative connotation it has in the past. Gen
X-ers need balance in their lives. As much as they
want to be free and independent, as much as they
want the city to conform to them, they also want
a safety net, and that’s what conservative
Grand Rapids can give them.
On the surface, many view Grand Rapids as rigid
and unaccepting of change. On the surface, many
view Generation X as loud and obnoxious. Below the
surface, Grand Rapids is changing and has been for
a long time. As it changes, it grows not only in
number but in culture. Below the surface, Generation
X is young but astute. The generation is needing
of change, but at a comfortable pace. A perfect
match, wouldn’t you agree? GR
Matthew Molter is a free-lance writer who lives
Gen X Voices
Is Grand Rapids Gen X friendly?
“No. It is a great place to raise a family,
but as a single person, it is not a good place to
meet people. For me, the social scene is a priority.”
— Kristie Kieft, 29, industrial sales
“Yes. Grand Rapids has a nice feel. People
seem very friendly here. … Overall, it is
a very safe environment and very culturally diverse.
… It is not as congested as a big city like
Chicago, but it has a bigger-city feel.” —
Laura Schmidt, 26, assistant portfolio manager
“Yes. It’s not too big, but not too
small either. There’s a lot to do and a lot
of opportunity for people our age. It’s really
a big city with a small-town feel.” —
Stacey Stanton, 30, retail management