Leadership and the Emerging Generations

Robert W. Wendover

October 1, 2007

Frank is the 55-year-old director of a call center in suburban Wausau, Wisconsin. He has been with the organization for 15 years, having spent the prior 20 in another firm in the industry.

Adam, Frank’s assistant director, is 38 and on his eighth job and fourth industry since he graduated from college. Having just completed his MBA in finance, Adam is exploring his options. “After all,” he says, “I’ve learned everything I can here and have no desire to move up the ladder.”

Ask Frank why he chose this career, and he’ll relate a long tale of how he started out in the garment business and one thing led to another. Ask Adam why he chose this career and he’ll respond, “Who says this is a career, and why is that important?”

Employers throughout the United States are discovering that many of the traditional desires and expectations that Baby Boomers sought as they matured in the workplace have been turned on their heads by a younger generation for whom work does not seem to fit the same central role.

As Generation X evolves into senior leadership over the next decade, its members will have a profound impact on organizations throughout the country—an impact that will differ considerably from their parents’. The effect this will have on work style, execution, and organizational performance has yet to be defined.

It’s All About the Job

A comparison between job expectations of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers reveals some striking differences.

Loyalty. Being loyal to an organization has been a hallmark of the Baby Boomers. Even with layoffs, acquisitions, and job eliminations due to technology, countless individuals of that generation are celebrating 20 or more years with the same firm. Xers, on the other hand, came of age watching their parents deal with layoffs and the struggles involved with maintaining a career. From this, many surmised that demonstrating loyalty to one organization is not a benefit and is probably a detriment. For this reason, many will never allow themselves to become so emotionally or financially attached to one organization that it hinders their ability to move on in a timely fashion.

Socialization. Baby Boomers, like the generation before them, have used the workplace as a major source of social contacts. This is demonstrated through countless holiday gatherings, corporate barbeques, cocktail parties, and trips to the ballpark. Trade associations have benefited from this phenomenon as millions have made the monthly and annual treks to meetings and conventions.

The Xers have honed a far different strategy for developing and maintaining a social network. With the coming of the electronic age, these young professionals have taken to the Internet to connect with those they care about and to find new friends. Announce a company party and many Xers will only attend if they feel an obligation. They are careful about developing close relationships in an organization they may choose to leave tomorrow. Part of this extends from that purposeful sense of detachment that many maintain with their employers. They see a job as a job, not as a source for social contacts.

Personal job identification. Ask Baby Boomers about themselves and their job title is sure to come up in the first few sentences. This high level of occupational identification has influenced their behavior and decision making on and off the job for the past 3 decades. Without making too broad a generalization, Boomers have lived to work. Their evolution as the first generation of dual-career couples produced millions of “latch-key kids” who concluded that parents’ careers came first in many situations. As these young people came of age, many developed an attitude diametrically opposed to that of their parents: Xers work to live. This has been demonstrated amply in the attitudes they display about work ethic and loyalty. They are happy to work hard and contribute to a company, but not to the exclusion of a personal life. Over time, this difference in perception about job role will manifest itself in how these young people lead organizations. While many Baby Boom leaders have allowed themselves to be consumed by their corporate identity, those in the next generation will actively strive for a clear separation between family and work life. Many see work as simply a means to an end.

Work/life balance. The subject of establishing a work/life balance is possibly where Boomers and Xers differ in the most pronounced way. Most Xers grew up as the children of working parents, spending their preschool years in daycare and their afternoons in high school as latch-key kids. A generation of young adults now has little desire to “do to [their] kids” what they feel their parents did to them. Xers are unwilling to work the long hours that many present-day jobs expect. They rail against traditional, but inflexible, organizational practices that cost them time away from family. Since they do not see work as a place for socialization, they are annoyed by promotions and evaluations that seem in any way tied to massaging the egos of senior leadership at corporate parties. They are determined to perform well on the job, but they wonder why work has to be performed at the office when it could be done at home. As this generation assumes senior responsibilities over the next 10 years, the way in which work is completed—and where it is done—is sure to change significantly.

Conflict. Many Boomers are products of the era of peace and love, coming of age flashing peace signs, sticking daisies in gun barrels, and getting high to the sounds of Woodstock. In contrast, Xers maturing in the chaos of the 1970s and 1980s witnessed fuel shortages, rising inflation, and the fear of the Cold War. Many were in elementary school when they watched their parents divorce, lose their jobs, or deal with the inflation and recessions that ravaged the economy. This, along with the impact of Vietnam, Watergate, and a number of other political scandals left many with the conclusion that conflict is a part of life and something to be overcome.

Xers are comfortable challenging authority and questioning the traditions they were taught as children. After all, many of those traditions proved mythical, at least to them. As these individuals enter into leadership roles, they are bound to alter the way business conflicts are handled.

Workplace rights. Over the past 40 years, the Baby Boom generation embraced the ever-expanding diversity within American society. Legislation—mostly promulgated by Boomers—has recognized and expanded the rights of countless groups, forcing employers, large and small, to deal with thousands of federal, state, and local laws (and the ensuing bureaucracy around compliance). Xers have approached this phenomenon in two ways: 1) as an opportunity to work the system to their advantage; and 2) with a somewhat skeptical and detached eye, since much of this legislation has proven to be underfunded and unenforceable. This is not to say that Xers are unethical or cynical. Their background has simply led them to develop a different set of survival strategies.

Education and training. The past 20 years have seen a cultural shift from an emphasis on education in college to an emphasis on vocation. While Boomers chose liberal arts and science majors as undergraduates, Xers have chosen engineering, business, finance, and computer programming. Some of this shift can be attributed to the escalating costs of obtaining a degree. Those now in their 20s and 30s have emerged from college with loans in the tens of thousands of dollars, forcing them to seek well-paid employment as soon as possible. While no one should chide them for their choice of major, their ascendancy into senior leadership will be colored by a different sense of the value of education than their parents’. Fifteen years ago, the vast majority of senior leadership in large organizations possessed at least one degree in liberal arts and sciences, providing them with the perspectives of literature, philosophy, and the arts. This has been largely lost as many Xers chose majors that limited them to the study of more technical subjects.

There are tradeoffs, however. As this generation has emerged better educated, employers have raised their expectations as well. Employers now demand graduates with content-rich coursework under their belts, reasoning that this will make these young professionals productive in a shorter period of time and, obviously, reduce training.

At the same time, employers sometimes complain about a lack of critical thinking skills among these new leaders. Some of this may be attributed to a lack of practical experience. It also may result from the electronic environment in which the Xers have come of age. Whatever the genus, the impact of this issue on corporate decision making will be felt over the next 20 years. (See “Critical Thinking and Emerging Leaders.”)

Attitudes toward teamwork. Baby Boomers have embraced myriad teamwork concepts since their popularity began 30 years ago. In fact, Boomers have been responsible for the majority of books written on the subject. Xers, on the other hand, learned about these theories in school, only to observe abysmal execution in most organizations once they went to work. Introduce a new teamwork concept into today’s organizations and Xers will be polite while containing a strong urge to run for the exit. Experience has taught them to wait before embracing a new initiative for fear that its momentum will evaporate within the first few weeks of execution. For this reason, they are skeptical of most programs introduced by today’s management. As these emerging leaders assume senior roles, they are sure to focus less on concept and more on execution.

Factors and Impact of the Transition

This intergenerational evolution will affect all phases of leadership, from boardroom to front-line supervision. At the same time, organizations will be forced to address some additional factors.

The Baby Boomer transition. A great deal has been written about the impending retirement of this enormous generation. Some experts maintain that the Boomers will not retire at all, choosing to remain on the job as a source of socialization. Others believe that many cannot retire because of poor savings habits or financial losses. Still others maintain that Boomers will take the money they have, simplify their lives, and turn to public service or charity work.

But what if the Baby Boom chooses to delay retirement? With advances in health care, the life expectancy of the average Baby Boomer has increased significantly. The longer this generation remains on the job, the fewer opportunities will be open to the next group of leaders. Those looking to ascend in positions of senior responsibility will tell you that this is a source of serious concern.

The tremendous base of proprietary knowledge that will need to be transferred from one generation of leaders to the next is another concern. While some younger professionals may dismiss this knowledge as out of date, much of it involves the central operating procedures within organizations. Losing this knowledge with retiring workers potentially could devastate many businesses. Staffing directors in all sectors will be forced to consider the variety of ways this may play out. The most effective strategy will require development of several different scenarios to assist in dealing with the transition.

Technology. Advances in computers and automation have resulted in massive changes in the business models of most sectors in the past 20 years. In the 1970s, the optimal span of managerial control was considered to be 10 subordinates. With the exponential increases in automation, however, it is not uncommon for today’s managers to be supervising 30 or more direct reports. This has resulted in a decrease in the overall number of managers within many firms. It also has made the choice and development of future leaders more critical. The debate continues to rage about the wisdom of this kind of supervisory model, but at this point it has become conventional practice.

Responsibility levels. With the increase in span of control has come a decrease in the number of authority levels in most organizations. Thirty years ago it was not uncommon for large organizations to maintain positions like assistant to the vice president or executive assistant to the general manager. These jobs allowed those on a professional development track to observe and interact with senior leaders on a daily basis. Doing this enabled them to mentally and emotionally prepare to assume critical roles.

Today’s young leaders can find themselves being promoted from supervising 20 people to managing 100 or more overnight. What is missing in many of these cases is the development and mentoring necessary to help them assume the larger responsibilities with ease and perspective. Instead, they are forced to adapt in an environment where there is little room for error.

Another factor is time commitment. Suddenly, these young leaders find themselves working 70 hours a week simply to learn the job and build relationships. It is no wonder that a number choose to remove themselves from the rat race, even if it means leaving the organization. This action, however, leaves many Baby Boomers puzzled, because for them the promotion was the coveted reward for long hours and sacrifice. They do not relate to Generation X’s choice not to look at a job as all consuming.

Globalization. With globalization has come access to qualified leaders outside the
borders of the United States. While U.S. firms have been dominated by U.S. managers until now, this may change as organizations no longer limit their talent searches to those living in the United States. U.S. business schools continue to churn out thousands of graduates every year, but multinational firms are increasingly looking to indigenous employees to supervise their businesses overseas. As some of these individuals demonstrate their talents and abilities, they will migrate into positions of leadership in the United States. After all, America does not have a corner on developing good managers.

Leadership development and tenure. Will the Xers remain on the job long enough to ascend into leadership roles? Historically, the development of competent senior leaders has taken years of training, mentoring, job rotations, and relationship building; but this has been accomplished during an era of career-focused tenures lasting 20 or more years. The members of Generation X have made a practice of leaving employers in a much shorter period of time, even when they are enjoying development and opportunities to advance. Will some industries experience a case of “musical leaders” as young professionals grow impatient with their circumstances and move to another firm within a field simply for stimulation or a change in environment? In other words, might managers be training their competitors’ leaders of tomorrow and vice versa?

Training and development. The upshot of these shorter tenures will be a pressure to produce competent leaders in a shorter period of time. How will organizations respond when some of their top performers decide to move on, ignoring the traditional sense of obligation to the organization that Boomers felt? In the next decade, these firms will be faced with the challenge of identifying rising stars, developing their potential, and appointing them to positions of responsibility within a 7- to 10-year period, rather than the 10- to 20-year span that was common with previous generations.

Benefits. Over the past several years, many organizations have made a concerted effort to shift the burden of benefits and retirement back onto the shoulders of their employees. Older generations have felt a sense of betrayal over this practice. The members of Generation X, however, have taken a more proactive approach. Many Xers are troubled by what they perceive as inequitable treatment around this issue. Only 5 percent of this group, according to one poll, believe that they will ever receive the Social Security payments they would be entitled to upon retirement. Xers prefer to maintain control over their resources rather than trusting the institutions around them. They assume that all workers will eventually have responsibility for their own health care and retirement. At the same time, they realize that this arrangement affords them the flexibility to shift from one job to another without concern for eligibility periods and other possible exclusions. As this generation assumes leadership, they will support the shift in responsibility back to employees.

How Will Xers Differ as Leaders?

As this new generation of leaders begins to migrate into positions of senior responsibility, they will transform both the vision and practice of the businesses they lead in several different ways.

Emphasis on work/life balance. The focus of Xers on balancing work with the rest of their lives has been a source of dissonance between the generations. As they assume responsibility at senior levels, organizations will make a shift in the way that work is evaluated. For older workers, there will be less intrinsic recognition and reward for long hours and similar sacrifices. The overall emphasis will transition to a truly outcome-based measurement of performance. The exception to this will be those positions requiring hourly staffing, but automation and younger generations’ penchant for electronic customer service may alleviate much of that, too.

Less willingness to travel and relocate. Xers’ desire for work/life balance also will result in more judicious travel practices. America’s roads and skies are filled every day with businesspeople on their way to meetings, conventions, and sales calls. Many Baby Boomers have been conditioned to believe that so-called windshield time and regular air travel are a cost of doing business. While one should not discount the importance of traveling to important customers and company sites, technology is already eliminating a portion of these practices. As Generation X assumes responsibility, they are sure to take full advantage of this option. Over time, this will have a significant impact on the way customer service and organizational communication is conducted.

Shorter average leadership tenure. Those in Generation X already have demonstrated that they view jobs more as contracts than careers. While many will find themselves remaining with one organization for a long period of time, this general restlessness and desire for flexibility and versatility will undoubtedly reduce overall leadership tenure. Xers place a high value on the ability to position themselves for the next opportunity (not necessarily a promotion in the same organization). This, they feel, ensures economic security, intellectual stimulation, and an ability to maintain a healthy balance of life and work. Organizations throughout the United States will see the average tenure among leaders drop considerably. This behooves those presently in charge to reconsider their assumptions about succession planning, leadership development, incentives, recruitment strategies, and costs of turnover.

An international perspective. The members of Generation X are quite comfortable conducting business abroad. After all, they joined the U.S. work force at the beginning of globalization. As international business borders continue to dissolve, the Xers will embrace management practices they believe will augment the traditional approaches in the United States. This will not only have a lasting impact on leadership styles, but it also may serve to develop better relations with immigrant workers and other foreign nationals.

Embracing diversity. The United States has been called the melting pot of the world since the beginning of the last century, but it was only in the past 40 years that it has become truly diverse. Our emerging leaders will continue to encourage this phenomenon for both economic and philosophical reasons. Having come of age in the midst of this transmigration, Generation Xers accept today’s diversity. Their sense of pragmatism informs them that these workers are both valuable and needed.

Increased emphasis on technology. Generation X has grown up learning to trust the computer. It is only natural that the generation’s leaders will search for ways to use computers as a means for improving efficiency. Where older generations may be more inclined to seek consensus (or at least discussion) on all manner of decisions, Xers’ penchant for technology, coupled with a sense of detachment and a desire to maintain life balance, will lead them to seek electronic solutions whenever possible. The long-term impact of this practice remains to be felt, but it is sure to have a critical effect on certain types of organizational decision making going forward.

Reduced emphasis on protocol. Generation X grew up with Sesame Street and deduced that learning should be fun. Over time, they have extrapolated that if learning should be fun, then so should work. This is the attitude many have brought to work, much to the chagrin of older generations wired to believe that work and fun rarely exist in the same environment. While some still argue that the work ethic is lacking in the younger generation, the facts speak otherwise. Their ability to work hard and yet do so in an informal way bedevils some of their elders. As Xers assume senior-level responsibilities, they will continue to introduce an atmosphere of informality to the tasks and practices at hand. For some in older generations, this may mean the demise of what they perceive as civility. Xers, having not developed these expectations, will not miss them. The reality is that the generation to follow them is even more informal in their attitudes about work.

Communication style. Generation X also has come of age with e-mail and text messaging. Xers spend less time on the phone and more time conversing electronically. They also tend to communicate with a wider range of people during the day than members of earlier generations do. But these communications are generally brief, to the point, and tend not to have the emotion attached to them that one uses in a telephone conversation. It is not unusual, for instance, for Xers to maintain continual electronic conversations with a group of friends throughout an entire day.

Going forward, this emerging generation of leaders will foster a more detached style of communication. On one hand, the use of this new “menu-driven communication” will increase efficiency and directness. On the other, older generations may lament the loss of nuance in communication. Only time will tell about the evolution of the English language because of this. Certain degrees of empathy and diplomacy may fall victim to the move toward efficiency and detachment.

Preparing for the New Cadre of Leaders

Generation X will vastly alter the landscape of organizational leadership going forward. As the next decade evolves, this intergenerational transition will occupy a great deal of time and effort. The organizations to succeed in coping with these changes will be the ones that work to anticipate and address these challenges now. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How will an organization’s leadership practices evolve over the next few years as the members of Generation X assume senior-level responsibilities?
  • How might an organization’s operational model change based on these trends?
  • Where might the dissonance occur between present and future leaders within an organization?
  • What steps can be taken to anticipate and work to resolve this dissonance?
  • How will the evolution in leadership be perceived by the “rank and file” within an organization?
  • What dissonance might this create?
  • What steps might need to be taken to address these perceptions and resolve this dissonance?