Although there is very little written about it, Generation X is now of the age where they should be running – or at least heavily influencing — many of the major business organisations. The group that was born roughly between 1965 and 1980, now has a median age of 50. Historically, that’s right about the age for entering the C-suite (57.7 being the average age of a Fortune 500 CEO). Given how much we read about Millennial attitudes (confident), skills (anything tech), and influences (social media), it’s surprisingly difficult to get the as much information about a generation that has been in the workforce fifteen years longer than them. Baby Boomers get a little less focus now, but they more than make up for it in their high-profile positions (Obama, Oprah, Bezos, Boris and Sting being just a handful of the mononymous members).
Though Gen X are the least likely to say it, their work attitudes may have been made for this moment.
Why does Generation X have such a low profile? It isn’t a lack of influence culturally (David Beckham and J. Lo would like a word). And it’s not because their contributions faded with their heyday: the platform formerly known as Twitter, the noun and verb Google, are Gen X brands that are anything but antiquated. Generation X has been disruptive and innovative since their early days in the dotcom era: Uber transformed the taxi industry, Paypal was a major player in personal digital financial transactions, Slack is digital workspace that only became more relevant during the pandemic. Yet somehow Gen X innovations and Gen X’s reputations live pretty far apart.
Even articles by Gen X, about Gen X, seem uncomfortable with raising their profile. This New York Times opinion piece by a Gen Xer titled: “Gen X Is Kind of, Sort of, Not Really the Boss” pretty much sums up the attitude of the generation. On the other hand, this article in Fortune – written by a Gen Y reporter — is far more confident: “Meet the typical Fortune 500 CEO: A total Gen Xer. Basically Keanu Reeves”. (The only problem: Keanu Reeves would be considered by some to be a Baby Boomer — born in 1964, when many consider 1965 the cutoff. Potato, potahto.) Perhaps the bigger takeaway in both articles is that Gen X leaders were described as the rightful owners of the C-suite, now and in the near future. Regardless of how little they take the spotlight, it is undeniable that their contributions are fundamental to how we live.
Gen X doesn’t just appreciate tech. They built it. (See: Google. Twitter. Slack. PayPal.)
But the reason that might be best suited for the current challenges is, their ability to manage the rapidly evolving ways we’re doing business, including the evolution of the workplace, and the changing priorities of the workforce. One of the key changes of the last few years is, of course, the new emphasis on remote working, whether hybrid or fully remote. While most workers are back in the office, a staggering 98% of people recently surveyed wish they could work remotely. The conversation and expectations about how to manage this new demand from workers is far from settled.
This shift has been resisted most (or at least most vocally) by the Baby Boomer leadership set, who has made valid points for the disadvantages of remote work, especially fully remote work. They point out that the youngest employees – Gen Y and young Millennials – suffer from lack of mentorship, less networking, and inadequate training. And Gen Y – the same group who report wanting to be fully remote – don’t totally disagree. They cite lack of opportunites to connect with more senior leadership and realise career growth as part of their motivation for coming back to the office.
Generation X were slackers in the eyes of Boomers. But their work-life balance will appeal to Y.
Gen X not only has been part of disrupting traditional workplace norms, they also share with younger workers a certain attitude about work itself. Though it will seem like ancient history to Gen Y, it was the so-called “slacker” set that pushed back against the 1980s work culture that preceded them. While the “work hard, work hard’ culture was romanticised by movies like Wall Street in their youth, it was Generation X who saw the true price of the new norm. As a result, Generation X is closely associated with the “work-life balance” attitude that they quietly advocated for in their own early careers. While Generation X has been more infamously attached to the slacker identity, it masks a more astute understanding of the value of prioritising personal goals while realising professional ambitions. A moniker like slacker suggests a group comparatively “less motivated” than prior generations, but in actuality, polls at the time of their youth (1998, in this article originally from Booz Allen) found that they were highly motivated by financial goals. They delayed having families – which would have increased financial responsibilities at an earlier age. They were more likely to take career risks – many of them were part of the dot com boom (and bust), willing to bet on a still nascent stage World Wide Web. In fact, the 1998 article mentioned above described them like this:
What we are seeing in Generation X’ers is a different set of attitudes about the workplace. In a nutshell, they distrust hierarchy. They prefer more informal arrangements. They prefer to judge on merit rather than on status. They are far less loyal to their companies. They are the first generation in America to be raised on a heavy diet of workplace participation and teamwork. They know computers inside and out. They like money, but they also say they want balance in their lives.
Sound familiar? Generation X leaders may be able to more naturally respond to what the hybrid and remote work experiences can offer, if they are optimised properly. Remote work (full or part time) gives employees back commute time, makes it possible to move out of expensive urban areas to be near work, and other time and financial constraints that reduce the “life balance”. While the language might be different, the goals are largely the same. The Generation X leaders are now moving into the C-suite might be the most natural fit to understand and lead this new-not-new perspective. They may rebrand work-life balance once again, and they’ll still find a way to make money while they do it. But if you want their successes shouted from the rooftops. . .you might need to hire someone else to do it.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.
Dr Robert Kovach
PSYCHOLOGY. LEADERS & TEAMS.