We don’t hear much about Gen X: most of the conversation seems to be a comparison between Baby Boomers and Millennials, as if there isn’t a group right between them. But in fact it’s Generation X that is coming of age right now…professionally. As they are all now in their mid-forties to late fifties, Gen X are succeeding Baby Boomers in the C-suite. In fact, the average age for incoming CEOs is the lowest it’s been in decades. Thirty percent of appointed CEOs in 2022 were under 50. As organisations do their succession planning at that level, they might want to take into consideration some of the unique factors that may influence a Gen X leader.
Why Generation X Might Be Just Who We Need in Leadership Right Now
Low-key leadership. Generation X is not known as a limelight-seeking group. Some attribute this to their original ‘slacker, cynic, drifter’ reputation, when they were accused of having little passion or direction for anything substantial. Others think they simply got outshouted by the larger generations on either side of them. Either way, it might be good in our social media-driven, rapid pace lives to have a group that doesn’t fight for airspace. They might be better positioned to just get on with solving problems, even if they don’t get a lot of credit for it. That isn’t meant to suggest that other generations aren’t very effective leaders. But Generation X might be able to do the difficult work of helping organisations through the massive change they face right now whilst being less concerned with getting credit. That’s no small thing in an era where your personal brand is a priority. But everything requires a balance and it’s hard to imagine this generation of leadership looking for the spotlight. As one Forbes article stated: ‘[Gen X] are not enamored by public recognition and find that freedom and time off are the best rewards’.
They might be the change they want to see. Gen X has been credited as being an effective bridge generation. They understand and appreciate much of the analog past while also having been young and adaptable when the digital era began. It’s hard for us to remember now just how disruptive the internet was to how we accessed information (and each other). But Gen X was early in their careers at that time and part of a major shift in how we worked and lived as the ‘world wide web’ developed.
We are in another complicated transitional period now. Gen X might be able to help organisations deal with issues like remote work, which is completely upending our idea of offices. And Gen X reportedly want more flexibility than any other group. They not only can manage change: they crave it.
Communication competencies. Just because you don’t hear a lot about Gen X doesn’t mean they’re actually silent. Part of the reason they may seem indistinct is their communication style reflects both of the generations around them. They can sound like a Baby Boomer since it was so influential on the culture and norms of their childhood and youth. But they also have more of the digital habits of younger generations because they were only in their twenties and early thirties when the internet, cell phones, and even social media began. As a result, they could be
exceptional at speaking in a way that other generations can relate to and understand. For executive leadership teams in today’s social media-driven world, how things are said are as important as what is being said. And a generation that sounds more like others might be able to get the message out to everyone.
X, Y . . . and Z. While we’ve mostly focused on Baby Boomers and Millennials, executive teams will need to focus on how to recruit and retain Gen Z workers. As the newest members of the labour force, we’re still learning a lot about them. But like Millennials, they are considered digital natives. They also tend to be independent and less likely to look to one employer as their forever home, so to speak. However, they also were impacted by the pandemic uniquely as some of them were in college or graduate school while many places were in lockdown. Others had just begun their first jobs.
As a result, they are more likely to value in-person professional experiences, having been denied the opportunity until recently. They are very aware of the impact on mentorship, team building, and other consequences of remote learning and working. Generation X, which is young enough to understand the advantages of technology, but old enough to have spent their early careers not relying upon it, may be the perfect group to help Gen Z. They can fully appreciate Gen Z’s need to connect in-person but not as likely to insist upon it as Baby Boomers.
Generation X has never been in the limelight. But they are about to run the show.
We are dealing with numerous complex issues all at once, and we’ve been doing so for several years now. That kind of constant change and challenge is unlikely to go away soon. And talking about generational differences is always tricky because people are not a monolith. But there are some aspects of the transitional time that Generation X grew up in that might have created a particularly agile and resilient type of executive. We’ve never needed them more.
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.