Generation X steps up to the C-Suite

Gen X in business - known for their ability to problem solve, innovate and inspire the generations that follow them.

Here's what to expect from the "forgotten generation" - Gen X - as they quietly transform the workplace from the inside out.

At a glance

  • Gen Xers created Google, Amazon and YouTube.
  • They are known for their ability to problem solve, innovate and inspire the generations that follow them.
  • They survived the Global Financial Crisis, the bust and, in Japan and the US, the fall of the property and housing markets.

If you can remember when everyone took long lunches, ergonomic safety was yet to be a corporate concern, and greed was good, you’re probably a baby boomer and, most likely, one born in the West. Chinese boomers were swept up in the cultural revolution and yet some (like the CEO of Haier, Zhang Ruimin), are still among this generation’s most powerful business leaders.

Born between 1944 and 1964, notable boomers include Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, CEO of Blackberry John S. Chen and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen.

They also include what demographer Bernard Salt calls “boomersauruses”, those who have already loosened their grip on the reins of power: former BHP chairman Jac Nasser, Woodside Petroleum’s Michael Chaney and Commonwealth Bank’s David Turner.

Nipping at their heels are millennials, estimated to comprise a quarter of the world’s population, or about 1.8 billion individuals.

Born between 1980 and 1994, this digitally savvy generation sees itself as part of a global social media, community and job network and worries about issues such as climate change, conflict and inequality.

However, there, in the shadows, squeezed between two generations of attention-getters, is generation X. Like a middle child, they are often forgotten, says Salt.

“I have always thought Gen X was very patient,” he says. “They have politely bided their time until the old lions were all but snuffed out.”

Gen X: CEOs and entrepreneurs

Born between 1965 and 1979, in the West they are the latchkey generation whose mothers joined the workforce. They listened to grunge and hip-hop music, watched indie films and fretted about work–life balance. In China, they are a post-Mao generation who welcomed economic reforms and a flood of new information and academic opportunities.

They are risk-takers and entrepreneurs, their sense of adventure fuelled perhaps by their early need to be independent and adaptable.

They created Google, Amazon and YouTube, and they make up 51 per cent of leaders worldwide.

Generation X’s ability to problem solve, to identify and reach their own markers of success and embrace their independence are all signals that they’re ready to lead, says Robert Kovach, who has advised leadership teams of Fortune 500 companies on driving business strategy.

“Their technological advantage is not innovation, but translation – and most especially, monetisation,” he says. “Gen X bridges pre and post-digital experiences.”

Eighty-one per cent of Generation X is on Facebook, and 5.9 million have Snapchat accounts. 

They don’t use social media for millennial-style selfies; they’re more about keeping track of the world and their millennial kids.

Nicole Gorton, director of recruitment specialist Robert Half says: “Gen X employees – the first generation raised on computers – are technologically savvy, similar to their millennial counterparts, but they are also effective collaborators and hard workers, making them successful influencers and leaders for today’s organisations.

“They are also the first generation in the workplace actively seeking a balance between work and private life, a trait they will continue to embrace and promote among their teams.”

Workplace strengths of Generation X

One of their strengths is an ability to relate to the concerns of millennials and inspire them.

Think of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce throwing the company’s support behind the Yes campaign for same-sex marriage, or Elon Musk’s vision to reduce global warming through sustainable energy production and consumption.

Gen Xers are also finding common ground with millennials in community and charitable involvement, says Gorton, something that can already be seen in companies that encourage employees to give back through volunteering and fundraising.

Gen Xers are quietly transforming the workplace from the inside out.

She praises gen Xers’ relationship-driven approach – Google’s Sundar Pichai is said to value the ability to work well with others, while Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is described as a calm person who is rarely roused to anger – and ability to allow organisations and teams to remain agile. Salt agrees that gen Xers have a talent for managing people, as well as seeing big-picture trends and directing resources there.

On an aesthetic level, gen Xers are quietly transforming the workplace from the inside out, from where headquarters are located, to how they’re designed, for example through flexible spaces and designs that favour casual meet-ups and co-working over boxy offices.

Future challenges

Generation X strives to make its mark in a world where economies are more global, the workforce more diverse, and the pace faster, says Kovach.

They are, however, used to challenges. They were the first generation in Australia to pay an HECS (university) debt, and they entered the workforce during the 1990s recession when unemployment hit 12 per cent. They survived the Global Financial Crisis, the bust and, in Japan and the US, the fall of the property and housing markets.

“They have seen an incredible amount of change, even between the analogue and digital world,” says Steven Hitchcock, lecturer in work-integrated learning at the University of Sydney Business School.

In future, gen Xers will need to understand the impact of new technology and societal shifts on their companies, he says.

“In the likes of accounting, we have seen large growth in technological tools and accounting software and a big shift in how people work because of this. Technological shifts will continue to shape the future of work, but so will societal shifts,” Hitchcock says.

“An ability to adapt to these fluid environments and think critically, as well as emotional intelligence, will serve managers and employees well.”

A flexible, people-driven approach will remain important as the broader trend of millennials changing jobs every two to three years for varying experiences and quicker pathways to progression continues, he adds.

“Are we going to continue to have a CEO or COO who has been with a company for 20 years? Or will we perhaps see a C-suite team with varied experiences working around the world?”

Generation X has also been a part of a workforce that is becoming increasingly diverse, and Hitchcock predicts demand for more cultural and gender-diverse leadership teams will continue.

“Generation X’s experience with change will serve them well as we move into a future where the only certainty is change.

Thriving as a Gen-Xer

Regardless of generation, “leaders need to be strong communicators, forward thinking, adaptable, decisive and positive relationship builders across the organisation,” says Gorton.

However, gen Xers, who face a dominant workforce of millennials and gen Zers (those born between 1981 and 1996), will need a different approach to managing teams than baby boomer leaders.

Gen X leaders would benefit from showcasing skills such as teamwork, providing freedom to make your own work decisions and demonstrating enhanced social responsibility, says Gorton.

Surviving as a gen X leader

Gen Xers may blame themselves when times are tough. “‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I need to be better at xyz’,” says keynote speaker and mentor Lynne Cazaly, author of ish: The Problem with our Pursuit for Perfection and the Life-Changing Practice of Good Enough. Instead of self-blame, she suggests:

  1. Thinking about how to leverage or reframe what they already know and the experience they already have. 
  2. Being smarter with their time, making changes regarding productivity, implementing lean processes and reducing waste in systems and processes.
  3. Exercising patience. Changing times call for experiments, rapid learning and adapting.
  4. Making use of their collaborative leadership skills and creating the conditions for collaboration to occur. They’ll need to make diverse workplaces safer to participate and contribute in.
  5. Considering switching job roles to find the culture that matches their comfort level and that weathers a storm where they don’t have to adapt too much. Who wants to work outside their comfort zone?

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