Why Generation X Has the Leaders We Need Now

July 19, 2009 | By Tammy Erickson

William Strauss and Neil Howe, coauthors of Generations, posit that each generation makes a unique bequest to those that follow and generally seeks to correct the excesses of the previous generation. They argue that the Boomer excess is ideology and that the Generation X reaction to that excess involves an emphasis on pragmatism and effectiveness.

As many of you know, I've spent much of the last year talking with members of Generation X—those of you born roughly in the 1960s and '70s. The book I've written based on those conversations (What's Next, Gen X? Keeping Up, Moving Ahead, and Getting the Career You Want—safely in the hands of the publisher and due out in December) includes many of your voices—including quotes from your responses to posts on this site. Through this research, I developed a deep admiration for the generational traits evident among most Xers, particularly in the context of our current challenges.

Future leaders in all spheres will have to contend with a world with finite limits, no easy answers, and the sobering realization that we are facing significant, seemingly intractable problems on multiple fronts. Perhaps the biggest change from the past: leaders will have to listen and respond to diverse points of view. There will be no dominant voice.

In this context, I'm convinced that Gen Xers will be the leaders we need. The experiences that shaped those of you who were teens in the late '70s and '80s, as I've outlined in past posts, translate into valuable contemporary traits and perspectives.

  • Your accelerated contact with the real world, for many through a "latch-key" childhood, has made you resourceful and hardworking. You meet your commitments and take employability seriously.
  • Your distrust of institutions grew as you witnessed the lay-offs of the '80s and has prompted you to value self-reliance. You have developed strong survival skills and the ability to handle whatever comes your way with resilience. X'ers instinctively maintain a well-nurtured portfolio of options and networks.
  • A sense of alienation from your immediate surroundings as teens, coupled with rapidly expanding technology, has allowed you to look outward in ways no generation before could or did. You operate comfortably in a global and digital world. Many of you are avid adopters of the collaborative technology that promises to re-shape how we work and live.
  • Your awareness of global issues was shaped in your youth, and you are richly multicultural. You bring a more unconscious acceptance of diversity than any preceding generation. Your formative years followed the civil rights advances of the 1960s. High divorce rates during your youth meant you are the first generation to grow up with women in independent authority roles. You welcome the contributions of diverse individuals.
  • Your preference for "alternative" and early experience in making your own way left you inclined to innovate. You tend to look for a different way forward. Your strongest arena of financial success as a generation has been your entrepreneurial achievements.
  • Your skepticism and ability to isolate practical truths have resulted in rich humor and incisive perspective. You help us all redefine issues and question reality.
  • Your childhood made you fiercely dedicated to being good parents, prompting you to raise important questions about the way we all balance work with commitments beyond the corporation.
  • Your pragmatism has given you practical and value-oriented sensibilities that, I believe, will help you serve as effective stewards of both today's organizations and tomorrow's world.

The most difficult elements of your past may well be those that provide you with the strongest capabilities for today.

You have traded the idealism of my generation for realism, tempered by value-oriented sensibilities. At mid-life, you are well-prepared to serve as pragmatic managers, applying toughness and resolution to defend society while safeguarding the interests of the young. You will force nations to produce more than they consume and fix the infrastructure.

In today's challenging world, your humor may be your most-valued asset. Czech leader Václav Havel said, "There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world." You help us step back . . . and remind us to laugh.

You will have the opportunity to change the corporate template, and create organizations that are more conducive to your values. As leaders, you will be able to reshape the organizations you lead to make them better places for future generations and yourselves, make them more humane, and break the cultural norms of corporate life — long hours, a focus on full-time work, heterogeneous perspectives, and language of combat. You will bring your desire to create better alternatives, including how to balance work with commitments beyond the corporation and finding meaning in work. Most importantly, your preference for "alternative" and your inclination to innovate will allow you to look for a different way forward.

I'm ready to join the team.