Have We Ensured That Generation X Is Ready to Lead?

December 13, 2018

Generation X leadership

The largest healthcare organization in America, the Veterans Health Administration, asked me to train 60 elite leadership candidates in generational workforce management and leadership strategies. When we finished, a Generation X female candidate came up to me and said with discouragement in her voice, “I don’t think our generation even wants to lead.”

Hmm. After that experience, when I asked other audiences around the country about her comment, a noteworthy percentage of X’ers agreed with it.

What happened?

For certain, there are many X’ers who do want to lead and will be excellent at it. Their generation has proven to be smart, adaptive, sensitive, no-nonsense efficient, and especially brilliant at creating new products, services, and workplace efficiencies. They’re entrepreneurial and open to new ideas.

But a phenomenon is beginning in American management: Beyond their control, the generation steadily advancing into the executive suites, and whose generational core values will dictate the direction of their organizations and the United States in the 2030s and 2040s, was not prepared by the all-important times and teachings of their formative years to “lead.”

The foundation of Generation X

Generation X, whose members were born from 1965 to 1981 and are aged 37 to 53 in 2018, came of age from the 1970s to the early 2000s. This is a unique and very troubled period in American history. Consider:

  • America’s leaders—in business, government, religion, and even sports—were regularly caught lying, cheating, and failing to deliver on their promises.
  • A new breed of ruthless corporate investors, called “corporate raiders,” bought big chunks of public corporations and forced their executives to lay off U.S. workers so they would make more money themselves.
  • Corporate executives—in order to please those shareholders and thus receive bigger raises and bonuses—cut costs and increased profits by launching the era of massive layoffs of X’ers’ moms and dads and the beginning of the stunning dismantlement of the Great American Middle Class. This leadership era (1990s and 2000s) of the Silent Generation male was so filled with executive and shareholder greed that, in the early 2000s, the Wall Street Journal published a year-end, multipage listing of more than a dozen of the year’s documented corruption cases and captured the full extent of the epidemic by headlining the story “Scandal Scorecard.”
  • Their own parents were divorcing in unprecedented numbers or were absent in their lives because of their dual-career time-poorness. As Gen X came of age, the American family unit took a terrible beating.

Everywhere X’er kids looked as they were growing up and forming their generation’s powerful and lifelong core values, the people in charge were consistently letting them down. So words like “executive,” “corporation,” “politician,” and “leader” were profoundly offensive to them. Why would we ever aspire to that?!

Today, now deeply into adulthood, many X’ers have a career track record of preferring to work for smaller employers and private companies than for publicly owned ones. And in significant numbers, they are working on their own as sole proprietors and freelancers.

There’s an additional leadership problem: For every eight Boomers born in America, only six X’ers were born. Roughly 80 million Boomers versus 60 million X’ers means that there are not enough replacements when Boomer leaders retire.

Preparing Generation X to lead

And so, here is the mandate—and the new opportunity—for all American employers: They must train their Gen X’er leaders and leaders-to-be not just in a generic “Leadership 101” way but, much more important, in an advanced “Gen X Leadership 501” way. Employers need to have a deep-dive workshop that is generation-specific and customized only to Gen X participants.

And from the field of generational study, here is the even bigger “big picture” for American management: Two generations of American kids, Gen X’ers and Millennials, have never seen the magnificent management culture that Boomers and older generations witnessed in their formative years.

Unless and until American management, coast to coast and across all industries, actually demonstrates with its decisions that employees are its greatest assets, who will give the company a great day of work if only management will stand on the same side of the fence as them and endeavor to recapture the notion of long-term job security, then those managers should fully expect the continuation—and worsening—of both aversion to leadership positions with larger companies and the frequency of job-hopping by all generations.

Don’t blame workers. Management created it, so management can correct it. But will they?


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About The Author

Chuck Underwood is the founder and principal of generational consulting firm The Generational Imperative, Inc. One of the pioneers of generational study, he also created generation-specific leadership training. Underwood trains American and Canadian organizations in business, government, education, and religion in a comprehensive list of generational strategies. Underwood is the author of America’s Generations In the Workplace, Marketplace, and Living Room and host of the PBS national television series America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood. Contact him at

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