Mountains near Château-d'Oex. (c) E. Forrest Christian

Why GenX Won’t Be Invited: Generational Politics and Keeping You Down

Forrest Christian Change, Coaching 4 Comments

You’re a GenX-er who has, since the 1980s, done your time waiting for the Baby Boomers to die off so that you can be invited into the corporate office. You’ve worked hard, done the things you were told and waited on that rung of the corporate ladder, stuck while the Baby Boomers ahead of you sat, Peter Principled, fat and happy.

I’ve got bad news for you, Leroy: you’re not going to get that invitation. Baby Boomers look at GenX-ers as evil or frightening. They are going to give those jobs to the kids younger than you.

I got thinking about this during the recent GO Society summit. I was invited to provide some insight into the writing process and to take notes on the meetings. (I’m in the process of writing up the meeting report. There was a massive amount of work done.) It was interesting because I was, at 42, the youngest person there. The majority of folks were in their 60s.

So, mostly Boomers.

Talk turned at some point about the “next generation”. These folks see that they are getting gray and know that they don’t have decades of worklife left. They want their field to survive, but they are the last group who “knew Elliott”, the founder of the field. They want to invest themselves in those who will come after them, keep the flame alive, so to speak.

You’d think because they are in their 60s and early 70s that the “next generation” would be those people who are in their 40s. Surely it is these younger adults who can take up the leadership positions that they are vacating as they retire and (let’s be honest) die.

Not a chance. Because Boomers don’t think much of GenX-ers. To this Baby Boom group, the “next generation” were the 20-something Millenials.

It was odd. Even pointing out that they really need to fill the succession pipeline with people in their 40s and even 50s didn’t go anywhere. “Oh, yeah.” Then on to discussions about 20-somethings. They simply don’t see the GenX-ers as contributing to their legacy in any way. They don’t even see them as people who should be in the succession plans for their clients, without thinking hard.

Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 by Neil Howe & William Strauss

I’m not sure why Boomers think this way, but back in 1990 William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted that this would happen. In Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, their massive book that explained their “crackpot generations hypothesis” (as per a sociologist friend), these researchers posited that Boomers would have an almost visceral fear and dislike of GenX-ers. They would instead feel comfortable with Millenials, wanting to invest their time and energy into them. Howe and Strauss argued that GenX-ers would not be in the succession for corporate or even governmental leadership, being passed over for the people younger than they.

What’s amazing is that 20 years on this is a big discussion topic. Havard Business School had a recent business podcast that covered this issue, how GenX-ers are being stepped over, how Boomers want the younger (and lower in the corporation) Millenials to talk directly to them, not through their GenX managers, how Millenials are being given jobs for which they have little experience or skills. There are major researchers pointing effort and time into looking at these problems, in and out of academia. There are major books on the subject and lots of details on how to get around these issues.

But I’m pretty sure that it won’t matter.

It may be that Boomers have always thought of themselves as young, immortal, and that dealing with a generation that tended to be morbid and realist harshes their buzz. They would see middle-aged workers as being “over the hill” and, as they are now mostly over 30, not worth trusting.

It’s hard for me, as a GenXer, to see my own cohort’s values as being somehow as ridiculous as Boomer values. However, as I see how our parenting style is perceived I’m beginning to be a bit more detached. The values of GenXers — and they do exist — are not opposite Boomer values but simply not within the Boomer understanding of values.

Other dynamics are coming into play that are not really generational in nature. Some of that is in how the workforce has changed. It relates to Boomers not training new people, at least not in the mentoring way that they were trained up by the previous generations. (Interestingly, the person most interested in mentoring new people at that meeting was one of the youngest ones.) Institutions became lean in the 1980s and simply stopped hiring professionals as they were too expensive. Unfortunately, Boomer engineers who were left are now retiring or dying. Their knowledge goes with them during a time when many older North American corporations are attempting massive change in their manufacturing infrastructure. Problem is that the MBAs and accountants who now run these businesses have no idea how the product is made. Or, in many cases, what the product is.

There aren’t as many GenXer manufacturing engineers because companies simply didn’t hire them. Older Boomer engineers expect to see GenXer engineers with lots of plant experience because that is how they learned. That doesn’t happen because those jobs didn’t exist during the GenXer hiring. Millenial engineers are more consistent because they aren’t expected to have the same experience.

So you have generational values issues (Boomer vs. GenX) and structural career issues (the jobs weren’t there).

What this means for everyone else is that soon American manufacturing companies just aren’t going to have a native population on which to draw for changes and implementations of new technologies. There are good reasons for this, as Warren Kinston has explained, but I’m not sure that it doesn’t represent a massive danger to national security and stockholder value.

And even if it did, and the threat were recognized, you’re still not going to be seen as the solution.

Image Credit: Mountains near Château-d’Oex. © E. Forrest Christian

Comments 4

  1. So?

    Okay, so I’m a Gen Xer and also used to being the youngest in the room filled with old white men. These men belong to dying companies.

    Question – where did Gen X get these crazy values from? Their parents. The Boomers ditched family to pursue career. They made wife and kids disposable for the sake of work. In the end, their companies will die because they didn’t know how to parent, to raise up the people looking up to them.

    I believe we are entering a major season of creative destruction. Boomer companies (and those that have been around for centuries) will disappear and Gen Xers AND Millenials will bring a new stream of companies online. Yes, stockholder value will suffer.

    One problem also with passing on just to the Millenial generation is that they generally in my experience don’t have the stubborn rebellious nature of Gen X. They are looking for leadership. Boomers don’t give it.

    The shame of it all is the amount of capital, experience, etc. that will be wasted in this destructive transition (Jaques included!). If Boomers could do a good handoff, that would benefit all. They won’t. I’ve observed this especially in the non-profit sector. They don’t have a clue what to do and are typically deer in the headlights when asked about 10 years out and their company’s leadership.

  2. Where I live, there are lots of businesses started and run by Gen Xers. The dynamics of who gets tapped and who gets passed over in these is a bit different from what you describe, as you can imagine. Of course, who gets tapped is still all very clubby, but the underlying perceptions of who is the “right age” to move up is quite different in these organizations.

    J.D. Whitney’s “season of creative destruction” reminds me of 3 business typology models I read about recently- value shops, value chains, and value networks (Fjeldstad). I know this isn’t new info. However, if you think about what might result in disruptive change in how businesses function, you can see how a widespread move to value networks ( in industries that haven’t historically followed that model can generate this kind of disruptive influence and rebalance the generation-based labor effects (assuming Gen X’ers take advantage of this disruption). I know I’m going out on a limb here with my “logic,” but it’s what popped in my head as I read the above post and JD’s comment. Sometimes I feel connections between things and don’t do a good job articulating what those links actually are. It’s something for me to work on for sure.

    One more thing – I can imagine how frustrating it must have been for you to sit in a room (of relevantly experienced people) being overlooked all while you use your expertise to help them achieve their goals. We’re about the same age and I can imagine what must have been running through your head as this all transpired, so I get it. Especially as the unecessarily socially relevant 40th birthday creeps up on you. It’s no big deal, FWIW. Fifty is the new 40 anyway.

  3. Post

    J.D., that’s pretty insightful. It’s also pure GenX. There is a massive difference between how Boomers see the world and how GenX sees it. I can’t separate out my generational attitudes, so like lots of us I see Boomer “values” as all talk and no action. That rebellious attitude will be useful when we have to check the Boomer need for a big send off.

    We’re never going to be invited to the table and they will never trust us. It’s just the way that it is. We will sacrifice what little we have gotten in order that our children know hope.

  4. Post

    Yeah, GenX were great entrepreneurs which is generationally predictable. They also hire strangely and behave more like stock brokers than business leaders. Almost all of use were hustling some angle or another, always trying to make a buck. They will be a part of this great disruption but more the solution to it, using their “just make it work” attitudes. But it won’t earn them much, as a whole. Yes, there are some rich GenXers. But they are, as a group, earning less adjusted for inflation than their parents and taxed at a higher rate at the same age.

    The folks in the room actually welcomed my expertise, which after all is as a communicator. I’m not a Jaques expert. It wasn’t that anyone was weird, just that it was funny to see generational differences come out so strongly. The real issue a couple of years ago when I was trying to show how the many HHPs I have (all coding through PeopleFit’s methods as Mode 7-9) as the solution to this massive talent shortage in the leadership pipeline that they kept harping about. Generational distrust provides a way to understand it. Like I said, everyone is really interested in hearing about how to communicate their ideas. It was funny to actually be told “I have no interest in doing a book for 35-45 year olds” and then “It needs to be relevant to this next generation in their twenties that we were talking about.” I had to stifle a laugh.

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