The trouble with managing Generation X

18 February 2015 -


Powerful and dominant, Generation X might have you believe it is perfect. Yet it is as flawed as any other generation – and so are its management styles

Laura Evans

“Clique maintenance: the need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego: ‘Kids today do nothing. They’re so apathetic. We used to go out and protest. All they do is shop and complain.’” When Douglas Coupland published Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture in 1991, popularising the name for the children of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a Baby Boomers’ world. The generation who had grown up in the shadow of war were the middle-managers in charge of the twenty-somethings clambering on to the career ladder. They were the peer group Roger Daltrey sang about on The Who’s My Generation, except people were no longer trying to put them “d-d-down”. Boomers were writing the newspapers, running the country, calling the shots – and, frustrated by the upstart Generation X, they were increasingly forced to manage in the workplace.

Not any more. Now Generation X is writing the newspapers. The Boomers are retired, and the generation previously denounced as selfish, lazy, disrespectful, disloyal and entitled find themselves in the position of exerting their management styles on a younger peer group about whom they have their own complaints. Careless, coddled, uncivilised, idle, lacking in direction and initiative, Generation Y are a blight on our workplaces and a millstone around the neck of their Generation X colleagues, who cannot be blamed for failing to manage them effectively. Can they?

For the record, it’s important to point out that generational characterisations are as flawed as any stereotype. Not only do they fail to account for variations between individuals, who may exhibit any (or none) of their peer group’s typical traits, they impose a false model of generational change as a series of discrete steps. The reality is more nuanced – factors including democratisation, advancing technology, higher disposable incomes and broadening secularity have gradually wrought a “seismic shift in formative influences,” says Geoff Trickey, managing director of Psychological Consultancy Limited. “With successive generations, the influence gets deeper, impacting on the developing child earlier and more pervasively.”

The arbitrariness of peer groupings such as Baby Boomers and Generation X is reflected in the fact that their definitions vary significantly in the literature. (Trickey, for instance, uses William Strauss and Neil Howe’s boundaries, which put Baby Boomers as those born between 1943 and 1960, Generation X as the 1961 to 1981 generation and Generation Y as those born between 1982 and 2001. For others, the milestones are several years earlier or later, particularly when it comes to the Baby Boomers, whom many understandably define as those born in the post-war period – that is, from 1946 onwards.) Artificial as they are, though, generation groupings are useful constructs. For one thing, they allow us to understand how the manager-employee dynamic is evolving, and how management techniques could – or should – be adjusted accordingly.

Danilo Sirias, professor of management at Saginaw Valley State University’s College of Business and Management in Michigan, US, has been interested in Generation X since they first appeared on the career ladder. In 2002, he coauthored Bridging the Boomer-Xer Gap: Creating Authentic Teams for High Performance at Work, a publication sparked by the emerging discord between Baby Boomers and Generation X in the workplace. Because many Boomers perceived their Generation X workmates as lazy and uncooperative, Sirias and his colleagues began their study suspecting that Generation X hated teamwork and tended towards less collaborative working than the older generation. They rapidly discovered this was not the case. Generation X was not averse to teamwork – it was simply that the way they worked in teams was new. Xers valued teamwork for its opportunity to bring together different talents and different styles of working for the common good. While Boomers wanted the efforts of team members to be similar, Xers actively encouraged them to be unique.

The discovery made perfect sense given one of the most defining characteristics of Generation X: its independence. “Growing up in a period when women were entering the workplace in record numbers, while the divorce rate was skyrocketing, many in this generation learned to fend for themselves,” explains Seth Mattison, chief movement officer at BridgeWorks, a California based consultancy specialising in multigenerational workforces. “They found themselves coming home from school to empty homes, making their own meals, doing their own homework, navigating their time on their own. This made them incredibly independent, entrepreneurial and resourceful.”

X was “the great under-supervised generation,” agrees Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking and author of Managing Generation X: How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent and Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y. What’s more, he adds, the peer group began work at a time when globalisation and emerging technology meant restructuring was on the increase and job security becoming an outdated concept. “They came into the workplace at a time when everybody was telling employees, ‘You’ll have to take responsibility for your own success’.”

Little wonder they rubbed the Baby Boomers up the wrong way – the last generation to have a job for life and to identify themselves more with the company employing them than the skills they used at work. But now Generation X are the managers, many are finding their habits and working styles are leading to new conflicts with the generation still finding their professional feet: Generation Y.

The X-Y divide

Part of the problem is that the very traits creating discord with Generation Y are those Generation X has traditionally perceived as strengths. For instance, Xers “tend to be hierarchical, seeking authority to make decisions and preferring formal processes,” says Claire McCartney, resourcing and talent planning adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “This is a strength in that they can guide people through workplace procedures, but it’s also a weakness if team members don’t want to operate in a hierarchy.” And Generation Y, by and large, don’t.

Similarly, valuing individual contributions and encouraging employees to work under their own steam are managerial strengths – but “what I’m hearing from managers is that Generation Y need more instruction,” says Sirias. “That’s going to be a conflict, if it’s not already.” Indeed, for Tulgan, their reluctance to spoonfeed younger colleagues is one of the greatest flaws in Generation X’s approach to management. “Xers figure, ‘Nobody held my hand! Why should I hold your hand?’” he says. This becomes problematic because younger employees, who “feel a great sense of uncertainty” about their professional roles and career prospects, need “much greater day-to-day engagement from their immediate managers”.

A lot of it comes down to communication: how managers inform, instruct and advise. Experts agree that one of the most effective ways for Xers to improve their management of other peer groups is to become more flexible communicators, being mindful of the unique needs of both Baby Boomers and Generation Y. The former, Mattison argues, expect a more formal approach and a willingness to communicate face-to-face; the latter also want more face time, but whereas Boomers look to their managers to simply tell them what to do, Gen-Yers favour a collaborative approach in which goals and processes are developed together.

When it comes to written communication, Calcom director Natalie Calvert suggests Generation X are better equipped to communicate with Boomers than with Generation Y. “Baby Boomers drill deep; Generation Y take in a lot of information over a broad range and skim,” she says. “Generation X take in less information, but still drill deep. This means managing upwards is fine, but when Generation X needs to manage Generation Y, they are managing their opposites.”

John Rosling, chief executive of business performance and coaching organisation Shirlaws, confirms that Generation X probably share more with their senior neighbour than their junior one.

“Boomers tend to rely on data and a ‘think’ style of management and decision-making,” he confirms. “Generation Y are tending towards a more intuitive and instinctive form of communication. The challenge for Generation X is to communicate simultaneously in a thinking style (data-evidence argument) and intuitively (real experiences, bullet point style).”

Generation “why?”

More problematic than conflicting learning styles are the deeper ideological differences between generations. Generation Y is known for its strong convictions, on everything from international development to higher education – and these are no less present in the workplace. “Generation Y need to believe in what the organisation they work for believes in,” says Rosling. “They are less motivated by hierarchy or money. Generation X needs to understand this and communicate their beliefs. Policies need to have good reasons that underpin them.”

This isn’t a question of pandering; the best Generation X managers look to not only accommodate, but actively harness, their employees’ beliefs. Indeed, Trickey points to their idealism as one of the most rewarding things about managing Generation Y. He also, however, concedes that “the combination of their values and their expectations could be pretty demanding” for managers – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The fact that they belong to consecutive generations makes it difficult for Generation X to change the way they relate to younger colleagues. As Calvert points out, many managers have teenage children and therefore unwittingly associate Generation Y behaviour in the workplace – listening to an iPod, using Twitter rather than working on an urgent report, or texting in the middle of a meeting – with actions they would scold in a domestic context. “Generation X are very good at treating their employees like their kids,” she says. “This means they’re no longer having adult-to-adult conversations.”

If the first step is to stop seeing younger colleagues as nuisances, the ultimate goal for Generation X managers is to embrace their employees’ differences – and benefit from them. Sue Honore, associate research consultant for Ashridge Business School, suggests Generation X should “try to create the opportunity to marry experience with youth and enthusiasm”, whether through multigenerational projects and teams or by instituting two-way mentoring, which not only gives younger employees the active management they crave, but also – gasp! – allows managers to learn from their younger counterparts. What could Generation X possibly learn from Y? For a start, there’s technological aptitude; sending an email, Calvert points out, is often the most sophisticated way in which Generation X interacts with technology, but that’s not enough to help them understand the working environment Generation Y operates in. “Generation X are described as technomigrants,” she adds, “but a lot are still at the fringe.”

Honore suggests looking to younger colleagues to learn about effectively managing social networks. Generation Y are the most socially engaged at work, with less marked boundaries between work and life than older generations. And, although this is often perceived as a bad thing, it can be beneficial when it comes to building relationships, both within an organisation and with clients and customers. It is also important for sustaining good mental health – as is the ability to get away from work altogether.

They may let their social life spill into the office, but “one thing Generation Y are really good at,” Calvert confirms, “is maintaining a work-life balance” – by which she means spending good amounts of time away from the workplace. Being idealistic, Generation Y are less prepared than Generation X to work more than they are paid for; they’re also aware of the benefits of being out of the office, something Generation X forgets. Managers could do worse than foster a culture where staying late is indicative not of dedication, but of inefficiency. “Get over the tuts and frowns about leaving at 5pm,” Calvert urges Xer managers. “Be smarter about how you work and get out of the door!”

The trick, always, is to strike a balance. Managers can and should adapt to suit their staff, but shouldn’t completely overhaul their approach to create an environment that works for Generation Y, but not Generation X. Tulgan, for one, endorses a tough-love approach, giving younger colleagues what they need rather than what they want. “Some argue that since Generation Y have grown up with self-esteem parenting, teaching and counselling, the right way to manage them is to praise them and reward them with trophies just for showing up,” he says – but this is not an approach he endorses.

“The high-maintenance Generation Y workforce calls for strong leadership, not weak. Managers should never undermine their authority; should never pretend that the job is going to be more fun than it is; never suggest that a task is within the discretion of a Generation Y-er if it isn’t; never gloss over details; never let problems slide; and should never offer praise and rewards for performance that is not worthy of them. They need structure, boundaries and a high degree of engagement; they need managers to guide, direct and support them every step of the way.”

Above all, although it is helpful to understand generational differences, the most important thing is to look past peer groups and deal with every person in the way that works for them. The best managers, says McCartney, focus on individuals. They adopt an open style and show their staff they are willing to learn; they avoid making assumptions about others’ career goals (particularly when managing Baby Boomers, who may not be looking to retire at 65); they are aware of people’s talents and let them play to their strengths. “Trust people to get on and do work,” she suggests, “even if they’re doing it a different way.”

The problem is, for a great many Generation X managers, that’s easier said than done.

Can't tell your Xs from your Ys? And don't even mention the baby-boomers!

Our handy generational guide

Bill Boomer

Born: 1946-1964

Lives: In family home with partner; children have grown up and moved out or (for the less fortunate) boomeranged home. Owns his home outright, but is lender of first resort to his highly mortgaged Xer children.

Workplace attire: Suit and tie.

Accessories: Wristwatch, BlackBerry.

Works best: In teams, given strong direction on tasks.

Leadership style: Supportive, hands-on, but with clear delineation between manager and team.

Loyalty to employer: High; willing to make sacrifices for the good of the company.

Water-cooler conversation: Sport, politics, television, grandchildren, the 1960s.

Likes: Face-to-face communication, respect for authority, dedication to work, enthusiasm.

Dislikes: Workplace conflict, competition, overly bureaucratic or disinterested mangers.

Xander X

Born: 1965-1981

Lives: In family home; children might be any age from toddlers to teenagers.

Workplace attire: Suit and tie for client meetings; suit and no tie, or smart separates, for day-to-day work.

Accessories: Smartphone.

Works best: Given freedom to choose the best process to reach the desired result.

Leadership style: Informal and hands-off; results-focused, with high expectations.

Loyalty to employer: Moderate; works hard, but has no qualms about changing jobs to climb the career ladder.

Water-cooler conversation: Changes within the business, holidays, kids, home improvement, the 1990s.

Likes: Deserved rewards, efficient systems, regular feedback, communicating by email or telephone.

Dislikes: Micromanagement, focus on process rather than results, gimmicky training and incentive programmes, laziness, distraction.

Ysabel Y

Born: 1982-2000

Lives: In a shared house with friends, or a rented flat with a partner.

Workplace attire: Casual clothing, including jeans and sneakers, for meetings and day-to-day work.

Accessories: iPad. Works best: On collaborative projects; given encouragement, training and mentoring.

Leadership style: Sociable, consultative, unassuming, optimistic.

Loyalty to employer: Low; not careerfocused, but likes to build a network of professional contacts to ensure any career move will be to an interesting and rewarding role.

Water-cooler conversation: Anything and everything, including personal life and plans to change career.

Likes: Communicating via Twitter and text, multitasking, frequent rewards and recognition, active focus on professional development.

Dislikes: Scepticism, condescension, lack of clear instructions; feeling an employer does not share beliefs and priorities.

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