Generation X: Stepping Up to the Leadership Plate

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

By Deborah Gilburg
Wed, January 31, 2007

CIO — 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.  

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