Harvard Business Online

Finally, Gen X Takes Over


What if you swapped all the roles of all the people on your team? Put people into leadership roles who hadn't yet had an opportunity to implement their ideas? Asked former leaders to play support roles, contributing their expertise, but within a new framework, established by others? Brought in people who had never been included before and made them full-fledged, card-carrying members of the team?

This is how 2009 looks to me. From a generational perspective, we are changing chairs—shifting out of the roles we've each played for the nearly two decades, and into new roles that combine our generational strengths and our peculiarities in new ways.

Oh, I know, nothing is quite so neat and tidy—an entire generation doesn't have precise boundaries and certainly doesn't experience exactly the same thing at the same time. But several landmark events signal a change.

One, of course, is President-elect Obama. His swearing in later this month will mark the end of 16 years of Boomer presidents. While some might quibble over the official dividing line between the generations, I would argue that Obama is not a Boomer. Generation X is stepping to the fore.

But interestingly, most of his top team will be Boomers, selected for their experience and lending—I hope—the best that generation has to offer: idealism and an enthusiasm for change.

The same shifts are occurring in the corporate world. Although the median age of serving CEOs is mid-fifties, most senior leaders are first tapped in their late forties. The new CEOs selected this year are likely to be X'ers. Boomers—competitive, productive—are beginning to move out of the top spots, but not necessarily out of the workforce. Like the Cabinet members, they're increasingly easing into roles guided by the no-nonsense views of Generation X.

Will these new roles suit the times? I think perhaps they will. Bill Strauss and Neil Howe, coauthors of Generations, posit that each generation makes a unique bequest to those that follow—and generally seeks to correct the excesses of the previous generation. They argue that the Boomer excess is ideology—and that the Generation X reaction to that excess involves an emphasis on pragmatism and effectiveness.

This generational priority will give X'ers a strong advantage in remaking organizations to reflect twenty-first-century realities: the need for transparency, accountability, real-time performance, lack of ideology, top-of-market effectiveness, and cash value.

And this is not the only switch. Generation Y's have graduated from being our youngest generation. Those 14 and under, the members of what I call the Re-Generation, are already demonstrating their own sensibilities, distinct from Y's in many ways. They are determined conservationists—serving as living reminders to their parents of issues we need to address.

Y's are now, in many parts of the business world, fully integrating into the team—no longer an interesting minority, their numbers make them a vital constituency. Within a few short years they will be the largest group in the workforce.

We've got a new team forming in the workplace this year. Here's a wish that we are blending best characteristics of each generation.

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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