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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

Laura Schmidt, 26
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 moving up.

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 be choosy.

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 Gen X-ers.”

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 and movement?

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 in Grandville.

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 coordinator

“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

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