Generation X: Stepping Up to the Leadership Plate

How to leverage the mind-share of retiring Baby Boomers to advance your career.

The United States is on the brink of a generational transition the likes of which has not been seen before. The largest generation in history to retire—some 77.5 million people, according to the AARP—will begin vacating the workplace in the next five years. And over the next 15 years, our workplaces will continue to shift to a new generation of leaders. That’s right: The reign of the seemingly omnipresent Baby Boom generation is in its final season, raising many questions about what this means for organizations and institutions throughout the nation. 

So what, you might ask? What does this have to do with me? Well, if you are in your 30s or early 40s (so-called Generation X), have a mid-level position in your organization and see yourself needing a job for the next 20 to 30 years, this has everything to do with you.  

The problem posed by the upcoming generational changing of the guard is that the generation in line to succeed the Boomers, the Gen X-ers, has not been equipped with the leadership skills and knowledge needed to assume the responsibility being passed on to it. Due to generational differences, the Baby Boomers have not been good about sharing their knowledge and experience, and Generation X has not been good about tapping into it.  

Currently between the ages of about 45 and 64, Baby Boomers inhabit the most powerful leadership positions throughout the United States—the average age of all CEOs is 56, and 65 percent of all national leaders are Baby Boomers, including the president. (By contrast, 2005 data indicates only 7 percent of national leadership is Gen X.) As such, they retain much of the experiential, technical, institutional and political knowledge in the workplace. They have the industry connections, networks and inside scoop to get things done. They’ve experienced successes and learned from their failures. They are community builders and can galvanize a force of their own at the drop of a hat. And they have vision. Those are the characteristics that Gen X-ers need to learn in order to assume the leadership mantle in the future.  

Generation X is also a cohort of employees who share some common traits. Born between 1961 and 1981, Gen X-ers tend to be a transient workforce, averaging a three- to five-year life span in any one organization. Gen X-ers are technologically savvy, pragmatic and competent; they are efficient at managing themselves to get the job done. They tend to be free agents, frequently distrusting corporate motives. And most have received very little training, development or mentoring in the workplace, and hence are adept at learning on the fly. Additionally, as a generation they have notably different values from the Baby Boomers. For example, many believe family time is so important that they are less willing to sell their souls to the 24/7 devil and often put work/life balance over income and career advancement. This means opportunities for flextime, part-time work and telecommuting are very appealing to them. These are generational traits that older leaders would do well to understand and incorporate into planning for their organizations’ future.  

Bridging the Gap

The term “generation gap” came to prominence in describing the disparity between kids of the first postwar generation and their parents, sometimes called the G.I. Generation. But another gap inevitably exists on the other side of the Boomer generation. This gap, created by differing sensibilities and economic realities, has put passing the leadership torch from Boomers to Gen X-ers low on the priority list. For the past 20 years, Boomer-led organizations have been highly focused on cost cutting and downsizing, often to the detriment of emerging leader training and mentoring programs. Furthermore, Boomer culture tends to emphasize competitiveness, self-importance and youthfulness—qualities that may make it hard for Boomers to grasp their responsibility to mentor and prepare their successors. In fact, some organizations are choosing to invest in short-term solutions, such as retirement postponement incentives that keep knowledge-rich Boomers in the workplace longer, rather than in long-term training and development initiatives for future leaders.  

Given the lack of consideration or preparation for the future that most organizations have demonstrated to date, it is quite likely that Gen X-ers are going to find themselves suddenly in the driver’s seat and expected to steer organizations through complex, chaotic and uncertain terrain, prepared or not. How can this next generation of leaders take charge and seek out the knowledge that they will need to lead well? How can they step up and prepare for their future? Here’s my advice to fellow Gen X-ers:  

Stop hoping for things to change. It is unlikely the status quo will change. As has been the lifelong truth for those who grew up as latchkey kids, Gen X-ers must continue to figure out what to do to take care of themselves. In short, if you are just waiting in the shadow of the Baby Boomers, push aside the apathy for which Gen X is known and use the coping skills you grew up with to effect positive change.  

Perform a frank assessment of your strengths and limitations. Self-knowledge is the most important tool that good leaders possess. When you are aware of your strong points and have insight about your shortcomings, you can chart a path for yourself to advance and succeed. Resist the compulsion to be overly self-critical; you are simply taking an inventory of your abilities and what you need to learn. Consider how your values, such as a desire for work/life balance, can be leadership strengths, and how a lack of political savvy may be a limitation. Successful leaders need to understand how to inspire people to work toward meaningful goals, and these skills can be learned if you are willing to do the work. 

Find the value in Baby Boomers. No matter what you think of Boomers’ leadership, values or pursuits, the reality is they have amassed a lifetime of experience and knowledge. While some knowledge hoarders exist, most Boomers are simply unaware that they aren’t sharing it, or that you don’t have it. Look for potential teachers, coaches or mentors who demonstrate qualities you admire or possess knowledge you desire. Seek them out and enlist their help. You may need to convince them why they should help you. To that end, sincere flattery can go a long way. So can free labor. Tell them you admire their work and ask them about their methods, or offer to take notes for them at a board meeting in exchange for a chance to attend and observe. Most importantly, focus not on where you differ but on what they have to offer. By taking charge of the process and developing relationships, you can harness the insights gleaned from their experience and help them better understand you and your goals.  

Employ the power of the collective. Many Gen X-ers have made remarkable contributions to their family, community, industry or country. Their collective impact as a generation, however, has been woefully low, and its members continue to live with policies, priorities and directives of an older generation that do not address many of their shared concerns. By exploring the common ground that exists among fellow Gen X-ers—in your workplace or your communities—you can start to change policies to better serve your common goals. For example, if you want flextime in your company, find out who else might benefit, and generate a critical mass to help sway decision-makers. Or start an emerging leader organization to lobby for the training and mentoring you will need to lead your organization successfully. 

Gen X-ers are often described as cynical and indifferent, and let’s be honest, many have been. Speaking as a Gen X-er myself, I know we have a lot to learn, but as a generation we have the endurance to tackle life’s hardships, the technical know-how to manage the realities of a global workforce, and most importantly, a deep commitment to the future of our kids. It’s our time to step up.  

Deborah Gilburg is a principal of Gilburg Leadership Institute, a leadership development firm specializing in generational dynamics and organizational succession planning. For more information, visit http://www.gilburgleadership.com/.

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