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The X Factor: How Gen X Leaders Will Impact Workplace Culture

We hear lots of fanfare about how the influx of Millennials and now Gen Zers are influencing the workplace. And news about working Baby Boomers, the largest generation, still ripples through headlines, even though many are finally eyeing retirement.

Curiously, not much is said about Generation X, which is sandwiched between its bigger, more boisterous cohorts. But while the other age groups are making more noise, this unassuming and scrappy tier of professionals is quietly filling C-suite positions in large numbers. How will the business landscape change as Gen Xers begin to run an increasing number of companies?

Changing of the Guard

No one was banging a drum when Gen Xers started to step into leadership roles. Stereotypically, the “middle child” generation’s rise to the top went under the radar. Yet, CNBC’s Global Leadership Forecast 2018, published by DDI, found that those born between 1965-1981 already accounted for 51 percent of leadership roles worldwide.

Just as they hit their stride, the pandemic eclipsed their ascent. But Gen X is used to being overlooked. And being incognito hasn’t stopped them from turning into a highly competent and tenacious class of leaders poised to steer the business world in a time of rapid change.

The Gen X Distinction

By most estimates, Generation X’s current population ranges from 42 to 57 years. And according to recruitment firm Spencer Stuart, the average age of newly appointed CEOs is currently 54. In this mid-life range, Gen Xers straddle various trends and demographics that put them at the pulse of the evolving workplace.

Unlike Millennials or Gen Zers, who were ushered into a digital universe, all but the youngest Gen Xers had to catch the technological wave as it began transforming society in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But unlike many Boomers, this plucky group didn’t hesitate to fully engage in the emerging digital reality.

Instead, they leaped at the new challenge, embracing and mastering the tech skills they needed to thrive. Their willingness to harness these new tools positioned them as forward thinkers and helped them to meaningfully relate to the generations on their heels.

Their digital prowess isn’t the only reason Pew Research labeled Gen X the “demographic bridge” between Baby Boomers and Millennials. As the population shifts, Pew finds that 61 percent of Gen X is classified as white or non-Hispanic, compared with 72 percent of Boomers and 57 percent of Millennials. And their attitudes on political and social issues also often fall between the two groups, leaving them poised to understand the more conservative and liberal generations better.

Gen X Leadership Characteristics

Gen X leaders can hold their own with technology, enabling them to effectively run modern companies and establish credibility with a largely younger workforce. But they also learned fundamental leadership abilities rising through the ranks with savvy Boomer bosses whose highly developed “soft skills” enabled them to excel in their roles. These skills include negotiating, critical thinking, decision-making, and communication.

And many Gen X leaders are using the interpersonal capabilities they acquired on the way up to blaze new trails. For example, CNBC researchers report that 67 percent are effective “hyper-collaborators” on a mission to break down the organizational silos that impede success. They observe:

“Gen X leaders’ strength for working with and through others is enabling them to shape the future of work and generate faster innovation by getting people working together to solve customers’ and their organization’s issues.”

And Gen Xers have another secret weapon.

When they were young, they were often tagged as “latchkey kids.” They got the label because many were among the first to have two working parents and had to fend for themselves in the afternoons after school. This lack of oversight made them natural problem-solvers adept at developing creative solutions. They tend to be resourceful and innovative, which are invaluable leadership assets.

Gen Xers also survived the burst of the bubble in the early part of this century and entered management during the market and housing crisis of 2008. Their experiences during eras of great uncertainty girded them for the volatile business world they now preside over.

Gen X and the New Work Models

The predominant 9-5, on-site work model gave way as companies were forced to operate with remote teams during the pandemic. When the health crisis subsided, the remote and hybrid formats remained popular because many preferred the flexibility of working from home at least part of the time.

Some companies permanently flipped the switch and committed to a mostly remote team, a smaller workplace footprint, and a talent pool not bound by geography. Other organizations that worried about the lack of productivity and communication they associated with remote work began to issue back-to-the-office demands when it was relatively safe to return.

Employees had mixed reactions. Many were reluctant to give up flexible formats when faced with on-site mandates and left rigid bosses for those offering better options. This trend was especially high among Millennials.

Others who found themselves in fully remote jobs craved the benefits afforded by in-person positions. Many Gen Zers are in this group, some of whom have never had the opportunity to learn by observing, develop closer connections with superiors, or cultivate strong relationships with colleagues. And numerous Boomers simply wanted to return to the in-person work format they’d always felt comfortable with.

Gen X fell into the middle ground on the issue, more due to their life stage than their generation. Most were advanced enough in their careers not to yearn for in-office perks. And they were at the age where family commitments to children and elders needed more attention. Still, they understood the merits of working on-site and appreciated hybrid options that gave them the best of both worlds.

Gen X leaders rose through the ranks of a mostly in-person career world before adapting to remote work during the Covid era. Because they have experienced and gleaned the benefit from both on-site and remote work, Gen X leaders are uniquely positioned to relate to workers of all ages on this issue. They are more likely to offer options that accommodate everyone’s needs.

How Gen X Leaders Can Leverage Workplace Culture

Boomers were the first generation of leaders who explored the concept of organizational culture as a component of success. The topic percolated in academic circles at the turn of the century before catapulting into the corporate mainstream after Peter Drucker’s proclamation that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

By 2015, few leaders were unaware of the impact their company’s culture had on performance and, consequently, the bottom line. But creating a winning formula for culture was still elusive for many older leaders who earned their stripes in command-and-control environments.

Gen Xers had a different experience. Many were also veterans of top-down leadership, but instead of learning about culture later in their careers, the topic was inescapable in business circles by the time they hit their professional stride. As a result, they observed their work lives through the lens of organizational culture and carried that perspective with them as they climbed the corporate ladder.

Additionally, they are close enough to Millennials’ age span to understand that most younger workers list a healthy culture as a prerequisite for employers. And apprenticing under Boomers who prized dedication mixed with their own generation’s plucky work ethic gives them grounding that the next generations haven’t yet developed.

As a result, Gen X leaders are positioned to be the most successful yet at leveraging work culture to drive successful organizations and build thriving teams. The most adept of them recognize their advantage and are rising to the occasion:

  • Growing up as resourceful, independent thinkers, they are more likely to identify and encourage behaviors that boost performance. Behavioral norms are the bedrock of an organization’s culture.
  • They can tap into their training with Boomers to envision a big-picture long view and goals, framing the organization’s purpose—a key component of developing a dynamic culture.
  • They can use their interpersonal skills to show younger workers how they are connected to these goals and organizational success. Cultivating this sense of belonging is critical to developing employee engagement, a marker of a healthy culture.
  • Their generation’s commitment to work-life balance will inform their decisions on structuring organizational culture to meet employees’ needs and maximize their potential.
  • Their independent nature makes them averse to micromanagement, focusing more on the results people render instead of how they spend every minute. To succeed, they will anchor their culture in positive accountability, transparency, and strong communication to ensure this structure works for both on-site and remote team members.

Not all Gen Xers will make the most of their attributes, and no generation can be capsulized in broad brush strokes. But the combination of their life experiences and ability to relate to older and newer generations have the potential to make Gen X leaders incredible workplace culture generators. This could be their greatest strength as they compete in an ever-challenging and rapidly transforming business world.