Gen X: Managers Of a Different Stripe

September 13, 2002 | By Andrew C. Schneider

With older baby boomers approaching retirement in the next decade, Generation Xers will be moving into management to take their places. That could mean bringing on someone with the drive and vision of a Michael Dell or someone with the abrasiveness and lack of discipline of a failed dot-commer. Businesses will need to keep these strengths and weaknesses in mind as boomer managers begin passing the baton to the next generation.

As a group, boomers (born 1946-1964) tend to be idealists, Gen Xers (born 1965-1976), pragmatists. Boomers, as children of the civil rights movement and managers trained in consensus building, tend to emphasize fairness and diversity in the workplace. The potential downside of this aspect of their management style is a paralyzing concern with political correctness. Gen Xers, on the other hand, take equality more as a given, having grown up after the sexual revolution and in a more multicultural environment. So they’ll be more likely to take every idea presented to them and assess it strictly on merit, regardless of source. Once they’ve weighed the ideas, decided what works and what doesn’t, and determined what resources they have at hand, Gen Xers want to plow ahead. Results matter more than relationships to members of this generation. For that reason, Gen X managers are fairly blunt and their people skills are weak, compared with the more-diplomatic boomers. That can create tensions, particularly in cases where Xers are managing boomers.

Gen Xers in general also have no patience for frequent, time-consuming meetings. Such meetings became part of corporate culture as a way of engaging boomers, who tend to perform better if they are part of the decision-making process rather than simply told what to do. “Boomers learned in training seminars that process was every bit as important as the result, and they got famous for having way too many meetings,” says Claire Raines, a management consultant who focuses on generations in the workplace. “A lot of Gen Xers over the past 10 years have gotten fed up with that.”

Gen X managers’ preference is to keep meetings to a minimum and let people focus on getting their work done. They regard their work as an entrepreneurial project and encourage those they supervise to do likewise. The attitude is an outgrowth of Xers’ strong sense of self-reliance.

“These are young people who have had to live by their wits,” explains Ann Fishman, president of Generational-Targeted Marketing Corp. “The three basic support systems that children are entitled to family, religion and government support were all weakened on their watch. They realized they could only rely on themselves and on their friends.” That experience gave them a sense of resiliency in the face of hard times and the ability to make difficult decisions quickly. They expect much the same of their employees, and for that reason, they’re inclined to manage with a lighter touch.

When it works well, this approach can lead to increased creativity and flexibility in a company. But the potential downside is a lack of discipline, says Ray Baumruk, a senior consultant with Hewitt Associates. Having defined a set of goals, Gen X managers expect employees to follow through on their own. Such managers are slow to ride herd on poor performers and are reluctant to rein in employees who lack focus.

Weak discipline was one of the reasons why many Gen X-led start-ups of the 1990s flamed out so quickly, says Susan Mitchell, a senior market analyst with the Mintel International Group. She notes that the truly successful companies ones that survived the dot-com meltdown tended to have a mix of Gen X leaders and older advisers or managers.

One way today’s business leaders can assure a steady hand among future Gen X managers: Take Gen X employees who show promise and groom them early. As managers, Gen Xers will be less likely to job hop than they were as lower-level employees. Furthermore, the experience of the dot-com bust and the recent recession have chastened them a bit, reining in expectations of rapid advancement by frequent job changes.

The recession also further strengthened Gen Xers’ determination to maintain what they see as a healthier work-life balance, and they’ll be more sensitive to employees trying to do the same. Many watched their parents put in 100-hour workweeks, piling up money at the expense of their personal lives and, in some cases, their marriages. “Xers saw that happen and want no part of it,” says Fishman. They’ll tolerate greater flexibility in employee schedules and deadlines for the sake of better performance and peace of mind.

Above all, employers should bear in mind that they have to earn Gen X’s trust. Gen Xers have no stomach for spin or broken promises. If employers offer something and then don’t deliver, Xers will be out the door unless given a good explanation. The collapses of Enron, WorldCom and other corporate giants only provided them with fresh examples of how costly loyalty can be.

Up Next: The Millennium Generation

It pays to keep an eye on the generation coming after Gen X. Commonly known as Generation Y (born 1977-1994) they tend to prefer the label Millennium Generation this group is about as different from Gen X as Gen X is from the boomers. Where Xers are self-reliant and blunt, Millennials thrive on team building and communication. They grew up with a much stronger support system, both at home and in schools, which gave them a sense that they can do anything. As a result, they make very good corporate citizens. They value stability more than Gen Xers and are likely to stay with an employer longer. That will come in handy: Because Gen X is relatively small, companies will have to draw from the older members of Gen Y before too long to address a management gap that Gen Xers alone won’t be able to fill.

One other point worth noting: This generation grew up with a much wider disparity of income and wealth than either Gen X or the boomers. That has made them more class conscious than any age group since the youth of the 1930s, according to William Strauss, cofounder of LifeCourse Associates, a generational consulting firm. Strauss predicts the Millennials will look askance at the disparity between what they are paid as employees and what top managers are paid and respond by unionizing in droves.