Look to Gen X for Leadership

Focusing too much on millennials and baby boomers? You might have forgotten the generation currently managing and affecting your organization.

"Don't you forget about me," Simple Minds sings at the end of "The Breakfast Club." It's 30 years later, and that same generation featured in the film is asking learning leaders the same thing.

With all the hoopla over how to integrate millennials into the workforce and the angst over what to do about retaining the institutional knowledge of retiring baby boomers, Generation X has been all but forgotten. It sits between these two large generational cohorts like a “lost generation” and gets no love.

This is a big mistake because the people who will be the movers and shakers over the next 10 years are members of Gen X. They are the people taking the management reins from retiring baby boomers, the ones who have to manage onboarding for millennials.

Because few organizations seem to make it a priority, developing this generation for leadership is a huge competitive advantage.

Start by investigating what makes Gen X tick. How do they learn? What are their collective motivators? What is their balance of inner drive vs. inner cynic? How can an organization inspire the Gen Xers, who are currently most of the middle managers, to lead more effectively?

For a more detailed analysis of exactly how Gen X fits between the baby boomers and millennials, read Pew Research Institute’s 2014 article, “Generation X – America’s Neglected Middle Child.” It offers real insights into how Gen X thinks about its formative years, as well as its current social mindsets. Take some time to read the comments section, because it gives a good snapshot of how Gen X feels about the lack of attention it gets.

The stark differences in perspective and behavior between boomers and millennials are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Gen X mindsets and habits smoothly bridge the gap between baby boomers and millennials. Put another way, millennial behavioral motivators aren’t special — just another step in ongoing societal shifts.

In algebra, “X” stands for unknown. For years, market researchers spent all their time exploring the baby boomer phenomenon, as that was where the people — and the money — were. Gen X got little attention, and that created a natural symbol for this generation. Once the obsession with baby boomers began to fade, the attention turned to the boomers’ children, originally called “echo boomers.” These crazily tech-savvy wunderkinds fascinated their parents, who were still calling the shots in American business. Gen X lost out again.

Who makes up this “lost generation”? We broaden the official age limits to give this generation their full 20-year due:

  • Born any time after 1960 (The Kennedy administration), and before the second Reagan administration (early 1980s).
  • Currently about 35 to 55 years old.
  • About 80 million people, using our expanded age bracket.
  • The original “latchkey kids,” who managed their own day while both parents worked.

Companies employ a lot of Gen Xers in key operational roles at the middle management level. Therefore, it makes sense to understand how they tick and what motivates them. They are the best source for raising employee engagement and productivity right now.

Plus, their upbringing as latchkey kids embedded some very attractive professional habits, like self-starting, self-reliance and a lack of obsession with instant approval.

The Pew article sums up Gen X qualities this way: “From everything we know about them, they’re savvy, skeptical and self-reliant; they’re not into preening or pampering, and they just might not give much of a hoot what others think of them.”

Throughout all the talk about how to manage millennials, and who will absorb all the great institutional knowledge of the baby boomers as they retire, Gen X is already conversant in the motivators of both generations. So with a manageable investment of directed development, they can step in and meet both challenges.

Large reservoirs of latent productivity will be tapped once companies focus more program development time on understanding Gen Xmindsets. Use that knowledge as a foundation to build more effective human development programming for this key leadership cohort.