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Meet Your New Boss: Gen X

The overlooked generation is taking over leadership.

Key points

  • Generation X has often been overlooked in favor of Baby Boomers and Millennials.
  • However, Gen Xers are quickly becoming the majority of senior leadership.
  • The special characteristics of Gen Xers could poise them to handle today's unique business challenges.
Pexels/Eric Nopanen
Source: Pexels/Eric Nopanen

Let’s be honest: you just don’t hear much about Generation X. Every political poll, every marketing strategy, every cultural note seems to be driven by what Baby Boomers or Millennials need. It makes sense: Those two generations are huge and far outnumber the Gen Xers born between 1965 and 1980. Baby Boomers are credited with social progress, leading the civil rights movement, and calling for the end of the war in Vietnam. (They also played a little music.) Millennials are known as the first digital native generation and — to their credit or detriment — are seen as a confident, norm-questioning, innovative group in their own right. But Gen X? Most people struggle to name many high-profile members of that generation or name significant contributions they’ve made.

Five years ago, in 2018, Gen X accounted for 51 percent of leadership roles globally. This year, the oldest of Gen X will turn 58, and the youngest will be 43. According to a study by recruitment firm Spencer Stuart, the average age of an incoming CEO is 54. This means that we can expect more and more of senior leadership teams to be Gen X. What does that mean for the Baby Boomers that are very much still in the workforce? And how will they interact with the Millennials that outnumber them? And Gen Z — many of whom are children of Gen X — will now be working for a group literally their parents’ age.

First of all, people are individuals, of course. There is no way to ascribe leadership styles — or much of anything else — to millions of people with different lived experiences. That said, we can consider some of the events that happened during a group’s formative years and consider how that might shape their perspective.

Gen X has now entered many executive level positions. How will their style impact their strategy?

Money matters. Gen X grew up primarily in the 1980s, during an era of prosperity. They were also the first generation to see a rise in dual income households as women entered the workforce in large numbers. This allowed more Gen X children to attend college, and as recently as 2018 (when the youngest Gen Xer was 38) they still had a higher rate of college completion than any other generation. At the same time, Generation X lived through the dot com bubble of the early 21st century and were entering management roles during the housing crisis of 2008. Therefore, they have been through eras of great uncertainty, which might position them well to lead organizations through the ongoing market volatility of the current environment.

Culture club. In particular, Gen X is closely associated with the promotion of work-life balance, probably in reaction to the intense 1980s work culture they saw their parents participate in. They were infamously known as “slackers” in their youth, but the reality is that Gen X was more likely to understand the equally important need to value non-professional priorities. Even in 1997 (when the youngest of Gen X were still in high school), attitudes about the "cynical" group were already changing. A Time magazine article says that Gen Xers were "hunting down opportunities that will free them from the career imprisonment that confined their parents." Leadership teams today are navigating the post-pandemic shifts in the workplace. That includes working remotely, starting side hustles, and the general shift in how employees and companies interact — all dynamics that could be well managed by this group of leaders. Generation X is a bridge that understands traditional business models but also relates to the expectations of a workforce looking for more self-expression and autonomy.

Proximity to inclusivity. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and previous laws to prevent discrimination on race, color, and religion meant that Generation X was the first group of children to grow up in a post (legal) segregation America. They also were far more diverse than any generation before them —- in 1963, only 16 percent of 18- to 33- year olds were nonwhite. By 1988, it was 34 percent. The rise in women in the workforce during the 1980s was coupled with the increasing divorce rates which hit a peak in 1981. Women were no longer locked into unhappy marriages for economic reasons, and culturally, divorce became acceptable in the late 70s and into the 80s. As a result, Gen X was the first group to see widespread single parents and blended families. The diversity, equity, and inclusion expectations of the current era have evolved tremendously, but Generation X might be well suited to understand fundamental shifts in how people see each other and themselves.

Digitalization and innovation. While Millennials generally have been considered the first digital native generation, Gen X can serve a special role as the generation that bridged the analog to the technological shift of the late 20th century. Many of the original dot com companies that leveraged the new “World Wide Web” were started by Gen X 20-somethings. Their ability to monetize the internet reflected both their 1980s upbringing that emphasized an intense work ethic and fostered an independent attitude that could see potential in an entirely new medium. However Gen X also survived the dot com bust, and as a result, they understand both the frenetic pace of growth during that period, and the devastating end of it while early in their careers. As a 2003 Gallup article reported, Gen Xers had none of the loyalty of older workers, with only 28 percent of those under 40 expecting to stay with their current employer long term. They may be better equipped to understand the type of constant career change that Millennials and Gen Zers face today.

Gen X leaders will likely be quieter leaders, but effective in unique ways.

Generation X, sandwiched between two high-profile generations, has historically been somewhat overlooked. And yet the accomplishments of Gen X have profoundly impacted how we work and live. They founded Google, Twitter, and PayPal. They may not have the high profile history of the 1960s social disruption like Baby Boomers or credited with the social media influx like Millennials. And yet they have helped build much of the digital era infrastructure we rely on. As companies navigate the ongoing uncertainty of post-pandemic life, market fragility, and supply chain disruption, Gen X leaders might be the ones who can just rely on themselves to find the answers. It will be interesting to see how this small, low-key group leads organizations in such high-volume times.

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