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The Grey Ceiling


Once upon a time, Generation Xers were the new kids on the block. With loaded resumes in hand, they made their entrées into corporate America. While many generational collisions ensued upon their arrival, one thing was clear: their ambition was to succeed – even if it was on their own terms.

It’s no secret that Xers have been skeptical of corporate protocol. No need to backtrack and discuss the source of this skepticism, as the case has been made that one too many Enrons can taint any employee’s outlook.

As Xers’ skepticism emerged, so did their demands for ongoing conversations about career paths within the corporations for which they signed up. Gone were the days where “just trust us” would be enough to garner their loyalty. Hats off to Boomer managers for putting career paths front and center and for doing their best to help structure growth and advancement that would keep Xers engaged, on board, and most of all…around.

A solid decade has gone by and in many organizations Xers have made it out of the entry level ranks and are traveling on clear-cut career paths. But while conversations about moving up the corporate ladder have taken place and are revisited at annual and midyear reviews, a new obstacle has appeared. As they pull out the organization chart and anticipate their next logical move, Xers see the rungs they are eyeing are occupied by Boomers. They are sitting underneath layers of skilled, experienced, and relatively healthy Boomers and Traditionalists who are doing quite well and who aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

KABOOM! Xers have hit what we call the grey ceiling.

Many Xers were hired with promises of robust careers and plentiful opportunities only to find that movement is slowing or stopping. As they see it, they are waiting too long in the wings, as Boomers clog the best jobs. But Xers know that if they complain about being stuck on a rung, they get accused of being impatient.

Over the next decade, organizations must address this challenge—how to groom and grow the next generation of leaders even as layers of older employees are still in place. Organizations that don’t deal with the grey ceiling risk losing scarce Generation Xers who are not willing to wait around forever.

What are you and your organization doing to help Xers feel like they are still moving, learning, and growing even if that doesn’t mean a climb up the ladder?


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