Members of Generation X (typically defined as born between 1965 and 1981) are used to being in the shadow of the massive generations that came before and after them. Baby boomers and millennials tend to get the lion’s share of attention as far as demographic groups go. And, of course, the novelty of emerging generation Z is capturing a few headlines as well.
“It’s kind of been the neglected or overlooked generation in a lot of ways,” says Stephanie Neal, a research scientist in Development Directions International’s (DDI’s) Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). But their growing influence and unique attributes are worthy of more attention, she says.
Neal says that gen X leaders now hold more than half (51%) of leadership roles globally. And new DDI research shows a wealth of attributes—including tech-adept, loyal, and committed to development—make them especially valuable to the companies that employ them.
Formed By Adversity
While ascribing certain attributes to an entire generation is always filled with disclaimers about individuals not always conforming to the masses, gen Xers were trailblazers in formative, if not terribly positive ways, says Cam Marston, founder of Generational Insights, a Mobile, Alabama, consultancy, and author of Generational Selling Tactics That Work: Quick and Dirty Secrets for Selling to Any Age Group. They were the “latch-key kids,” many of whom had two working parents and came home from school to an empty house—with no mobile phones to keep in touch with Mom and Dad all the time. Many entered the job market during or shortly after the recession in the late 1980s. These phenomena left them with no illusions about how easy it would be to make their way in the world.
These generational signposts left their mark on many gen Xers, says generational expert and humorist Meagan Johnson, coauthor of Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters–Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work. From an early age, they had freedom to make decisions and were left on their own to organize their time, do their chores, and get their homework done before their parents got home. This has made many gen X managers entrepreneurial and independent in their management style—which can be a challenge for their millennial counterparts and direct reports who often crave more feedback and interaction, Marston says.
“That gen X manager thinks he or she is doing his or her team a favor by leaving them alone to do their job,” he says. They’re managing others like they would like to be managed—get the work done, avoid the distractions, and go home. Gen X managers often don’t crave the close workplace friendships that their older and younger counterparts do, Johnson adds. At the same time, they do place a high value on mentoring and helping others develop.
The DDI research found that this smaller group between two massive generational populations enjoys some of the best attributes of both, however. Despite their penchant for being independent, Marston says gen Xers are good communicators—especially those who fall in the “tweener” group born between 1960 and 1970–late boomer generation through early gen X.
“These people are remarkable communicators,” he says. They understand the boomer mentality and often excel in management and leadership roles because of their remarkable communication skills, he says.
As for the myth that gen Xers aren’t as tech-savvy as “digital natives (millennials), the research just doesn’t bear that out, Neal says. The DDI report found that gen Xers were early tech adopters and are just as digitally adept as their younger counterparts. A 2016 Nielsen report also found that they’re more prolific social media users than any other generation, she says. They typically spend more time plugged in to their devices and have less work-life balance than their millennial counterparts.
Because the boomers before them have been slow to move out of the workplace and retire, gen Xers have also been slower to advance into management roles than their predecessors, Neal says. This has made them somewhat cynical about leadership, but also more eager to seek development opportunities outside the workplace.
“They seem to recognize that their organizations within can’t handle all of the challenges necessarily facing them, and they’re looking for leadership or guidance outside their organizations to help meet some of these new challenges that they’re facing,” Neal says.
What Gen X Wants
For companies to attract and keep these seasoned managers, it’s important to realize that, while gen Xers are pegged as loyal workhorses, if they feel bored or stagnant, they’ll move on, Marston says. They’ve been on the job for 20 years. They may be getting the mid-career doldrums and asking, “What’s next?” Companies need to be ready with an answer in the form of new opportunities, stretch assignments, or career path options.
To make the most of their gen X leaders, Neal says companies should let them use their independence and external development to solve challenges. In one of her reports on the research, she writes, “Gen Xers are taking the lead at a time when change is regular and desirable. Provide them the freedom and encouragement to try out new approaches and challenge old ones to encourage innovation and growth.”
Johnson also sees opportunity in encouraging their inclination to mentor others—which is good news because millennials often value strong mentors. “Sometimes being a mentor though is more than just telling somebody ‘how I did it.’ It’s challenging your mentee to think differently. And that really taps into what gen Xers want to do. ‘Let’s think about the situation differently if there’s a better way of doing things,'” she says.