Companies & Industries

Generation X: Stuck in the Middle


Tammy Erickson on how Generation X can survive the Boomer-Gen Y love fest

Posted on Across the Ages: December 12, 2007 2:49 PM

I have a lot of empathy for Gen X managers.

Many tell me that they feel like they've been waiting for years for Boomers to vacate the really "good" jobs. Now, just as the prize is finally looming into sight, Boomers are being advised (granted, by me among others) to "retire retirement." Meanwhile, the workplace is flooding with a new crop of highly talented, upwardly mobile Generation Y's. And, to top it all off, under the thin veneer of occasional head shaking, these two huge generations, the Boomers and the Y's, are quietly enjoying a workplace love fest, with the much smaller cohort of X'ers often feeling on the outs and sandwiched in the middle.

What's going on? Is the future of Generation X in the corporate suite at risk?

Well, first, the need for Boomers to delay retirement is pretty real. Many countries around the world are facing skill shortages and need their talents. But, that doesn't mean that all of the Boomers (or even necessarily many) want to remain in key leadership roles much longer. Many who tell me that they'd like to continue working are quick to add that they are not interested in a role with the same level of responsibility or pressure that they hold today. Chances are good that the top jobs will open up.

However, before they go, the Boomers will have a major influence on who succeeds them in these coveted spots. And, for X'ers, the growing competition from the Y's is real. Several Boomer corporate leaders told me recently that they find themselves gravitating with pleasure to the Y's in their organization. "Skip level meetings are really a joy," one explained. "I find myself connecting with those guys more easily than I do with my own direct reports."

There's some logic there. Although Boomers may be rolling their eyes a bit at the bold entry of Y's into the workplace, I find in my interviews with them that many are pretty tickled with the Y's enthusiasm and eagerness to learn—and particularly their eagerness to learn from them. Don't we all love to be looked up to as the experts? Y's are proving quick to soak up all that Boomers can give.

In contrast, as I've discussed in earlier posts, ("Ouch! The Painful Divide between Generation X and the Boomers," June 26, 2007), the relationship between X'ers and Boomers can be tough. To many X'ers, Boomers have already taken up far too much physical space and mental mindshare, often with an air of decided superiority and self-pre-occupation, and for far too long. Looking up to Boomer bosses for advice or coaching is, for many X'ers, wearing thin. Unfortunately, this often translates into a friction that can be felt on both sides.

What's an X'er to do, particularly if you're managing in the middle of this complicated dynamic? My practical side leans toward the "if you can't beat it, use it" strategy:

First, don't fight the natural draw between Boomers and Y's. Leverage it to your advantage. Encourage mentoring relationships between Boomers and Y's. They'll both enjoy it, and it will save you a lot of valuable time that you'd otherwise have to invest in developing the skill sets of your younger reports.

Second, embrace the Y's technological prowess. Use their tech savvy to look for innovative ways to get work accomplished faster and easier or to redesign your group's processes. Because they are our first generation of "unconscious" technology users in the workplace, Y's tend to do things differently without even trying. Consider seriously where the new approaches might be more effective.

Finally, if you feel stuck, move sideways. Some X'ers tell me they're planning to bail out of corporations rather than risk being forever sandwiched in the middle ranks. But corporations, looked at creatively, can be great places to broaden your options by providing multiple roles and ways to learn a wider range of skills. Ask for opportunities that stretch you in new and interesting directions.

Gen X'ers, how do you see your challenge?

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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