Gen X, the generation sandwiched between Boomers and Millennials, may not get a lot of attention, but they currently comprise 36% of the workforce and—get this—hold the majority of leadership roles globally. That makes them statistically significant in the workplace and worthy of attention. Well, well, well…
The New York Times points out that the average age of incoming CEOs is around 54—squarely in the Gen X age bracket. “It’s Gen X’s moment, that generation most known for being crowded out of sweeping cultural age analyses by millennials on one end and boomers on the other,” it quips. As Fortune puts it, “Reality no longer bites for the leaders of the country’s biggest firms…There are currently 267 Fortune 500 CEOs who could have been held in detention as the Breakfast Club.”
CEO Magazine reports that, in 2022, the average age of incoming CEOs fell dramatically (remember the Great C-Suite exodus at the tail end of the Great Resignation?). The publication goes on to claim that “the number of those under 50 leading S&P500 companies more than doubled to 30%.”
It appears, then, that the “forgotten” generation, aka the “sandwich” generation, aka the “slackers” are in charge. What should we know about our new, unassuming overlords?
Gen X aren’t slackers. Fair or not, every generation bears certain stereotypes. Gen X’s persona of being pessimistic and apathetic may be as unjust as they come. Zety found that Gen X leaders feel they have a better work ethic, are more independent and entrepreneurial, and are even more digitally connected than all other workplace generations. Indeed goes further, reminding us that Gen X “grew up with minimal adult supervision, quickly learning the value of independence and work-life balance. They also appreciate informality, are technologically adept, flexible, and highly educated.”
Many are as idealistic about work as Millennials and Gen Z are. Maybe many Gen Xers really are as pragmatic and skeptical as they come, but that doesn’t mean the generation hasn’t sought out meaningful work just like everyone else. Zety’s research shows that, yes, even 71% of Gen Xers feel “doing meaningful work” is more rewarding than “earning a lot of money” and an impressive 86% view sense of purpose as their top professional priority.
“At some level, people are people. They want to have meaningful work. They want to have real connections with their coworkers and their managers; they want what they’re doing to have broader purpose; they want to be fairly compensated. That’s what’s most important for everyone,” adds McKinsey Partner Bryan Hancock.
But they are fighting a post-pandemic detachment challenge. All this being said, DDI’s 2023 Global Leadership Forecast uncovered an ugly truth about the Gen X-dominant CEO cohort post-pandemic: a woeful detachment between leadership and the workforce. “While most CEOs express high levels of confidence in their ability to foster an inclusive culture, only 24% of frontline managers say that inclusion is a strong part of their organization’s culture. Similarly, while most CEOs claim to be well-equipped to prevent burnout, only 27% of leaders say their organization is committed to employee well-being.”
Many are struggling with retirement savings. As Gen Xers approach retirement, their chance of doing so as comfortably as Baby Boomers is low. The facts are that Gen X carries the most personal debt and only about half are participating in a work-sponsored retirement plan.
“When looking at median retirement savings levels for Generation X…the bottom half of earners have only a few thousand dollars saved for retirement, and the typical household has only $40,000 in retirement savings,” reports the National Institute on Retirement Security. Prudential found that nearly half (47%) of Gen X workers expect to retire later than they planned, and 40% anticipate working part-time in retirement.
Many need hybrid work more than they want it. Would you believe that more than half (52%) of Gen X responders told Zety that they chose teamwork as their favorite form of work and that 60% either preferred or at least didn’t mind working onsite? Despite these preferences, however, many Gen Xers feel that hybrid work is a necessity for them right now because of their caretaking responsibilities. More than half (54%) of Americans in their 40s and 36% of Americans in their 50s have a living parent who is 65+ and are either raising a child younger than 18 or have an adult child they help financially. This makes Gen X the “sandwich” generation in more ways than one.
“The average caregiver in America is a 49-year-old woman…[these] Gen X caregivers are typically employed, with most saying caregiving has had at least one impact on their work,” Business Insider summarizes.
While generational pigeonholing can be damaging for Gen X and others, understanding how leadership styles are affected by generational nuances is just smart business. Keep it in mind when hiring and retaining executives and, if your path forward gets fuzzy, consider reaching out to an advisor who can help you formulate a clear executive hiring strategy.
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