The Coming Of The Gen X Bosses

They're ready for management roles--but are you ready for them?
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the November 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

They've been derided as slackers, disloyal and lazy, but guess what? Increasingly, management jobs are going to those folks--Gen Xers--born between 1965 and 1977. Why? Do the math. The oldest Gen Xers are now in their mid-30s, prime time for assuming a first management position, and the ever-tightening labor market means that even more Xers likely will get this nod. And that triggers questions: Will they manage as well as boomers have? Differently? What do we need to know to get the most out of an Xer manager? If you have one or more boomer managers, how will they relate to an Xer peer in management?

For starters, understand that more than a few gray hairs and wrinkles separate baby boomers from Gen Xers when it comes to management style. "Our research--and we've interviewed thousands of people--shows that Gen X managers are very different," says Bruce Tulgan, founder of New Haven, Connecticut, RainmakerThinking, a consulting firm that specializes in Gen X issues, and author of Managing Generation X (Capstone).

"You cannot treat Gen Xers as if they were boomers," adds management consultant Rick Maurer, author of Beyond the Wall of Resistance (Bard Press). "They just aren't motivated by the same things, and they come to work with a value system that differs in many ways from boomers'."

Therefore, it's no surprise that boomer business owners and managers just may feel unsettled when they confront an Xer manager: "It takes a strong boomer not to feel threatened," says Beverly Kaye, a Sherman Oaks, California, career development expert and author of Up Is Not The Only Way (Davies-Black).

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail

10 Generation Differences

Just how do Xers differ? Experts rush to provide 10 characteristics that distinguish them from boomers:

1. More collaborative. "Xers are more well-versed in collaboration. They take teamwork seriously," says Andrew DuBrin, a management professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Leadership (Macmillan).

Jay Conger, a management professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, concurs: "Xers were raised on a diet of teaming, and they like it." For boomer managers, on the other hand, team orientations were introduced into the workplace only after most had already logged years in nonteam-based companies. For them, there still may be some hesitancy about the value of teamwork.

2. Less hierarchical. "You need to treat a Gen Xer as a peer, not a subordinate, warns Ray Marcy, president and CEO of Interim Services Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, human capital management firm that recently completed the Emerging Workforce Study, a detailed analysis of workplace trends and attitudes. "The Gen Xer needs to be engaged in the decision-making process." Bark an order at a boomer manager, and he'll probably comply. A Gen Xer might not--at least not until he's convinced it's the right thing to do.

3. More altruistic. "Gen Xers go into management roles for more altruistic reasons than did boomers," says Claire Raines, co-author of Generations at Work (Amacom). "They don't see `status' as necessarily associated with being a manager."

Then why do they want the job in the first place? "They want to be the kind of managers they would have wanted," says Tulgan.

4. More comfortable with women bosses. "This is the first generation where the women, when surveyed, say they would prefer a female boss and the men express no preference between a male or female superior," says Conger.

5. More skilled in management. "More Xers have formally studied management, and they're more professional in their approach than boomers were at the same age," says DuBrin. Boomers often wound up in management without a moment's training, and "many more of them were outrageously bad at it," DuBrin adds.

6. More tech-savvy. "Computers have always been part of the lives of Xers, and much more than boomers, they love computers," says Conger. "This is the first true Information Generation."

7. Balanced. "For Gen X, a balance between work and the rest of their lives is critical," says Maurer. "They want a life outside of work."

8. Candid in their communications. Raised on a diet of gentle, psychologically tinged talk, boomers "are often softer in how they talk, including [how they speak to] subordinates. They're more indirect," says Raines. "Xers tend to be straightforward and direct."

9.Self-reliant. Define employee loyalty as a readiness to stay with a company come hell or high water, and Xers fail the test. "They are always ready to move to the next job," says Conger. That means when a job ceases to satisfy--creatively, intellectually, emotionally or economically--they're not afraid to dust off the resume and get looking for a new company.

"Xers tend to be loyal to their professions, not their employers," adds Maurer, "while boomers still retain attitudes of company loyalty and feel others should think the same way."

10. Rule-shy. The "slacker" myth is about as true of Xers as the "flower child" myth was of boomers. In the case of Xers, there's plentiful evidence that when properly motivated, they are creative, tenacious workers. "Xers are always in a hurry; they push for results, and they tend to sidestep rules and procedures," says Tulgan. In the bargain, "they're willing to take risks and innovate--even when this drives their bosses nuts."

Sound like the differences are extreme? Know, too, that Gen Xers aren't shy about criticizing boomer management styles. "They frequently complain about it," says Raines. "They say boomers know the talk but don't walk it, and that boomers simply pay lip service to participation and teamwork."

What's more, for their part, baby boomers often think " `We're right; they're wrong' and try to change the attitudes of Xer managers. It doesn't work," says Raines. "In this economy, you'll lose employees if you approach them that way."

Even so, if the first mistake that's made in approaching a Gen X manager is assuming he or she is much like a boomer and the second mistake is blindly trying to change the Xer's mindset, the next big mistake is attaching too much importance to generational differences. "Stereotyping by generation is weak," says DuBrin. "There are as many differences within a group as there are between two groups."

Maurer agrees: "It's too easy to overplay the differences. There are generational differences, but that may not be what's ultimately important."

What is? "It's important to look at differences, but on an individual basis," says Maurer. "Small-business owners and senior management need to focus on their individuals, not on macro differences. Talk to your people."

By all means, study the list of generational differences--it's an especially good reference when the first reaction to a Gen Xer's behavior is confusion ("Why'd he do that?")--but don't be mesmerized by it. Instead, invite in Gen X managers for a chat and probe for what makes them tick. What are their motivations? What turns them on? What do they like about the workplace and what do they want to change? Hear them out, and also say what matters to you, where you'll bend, and where you won't budge.

Odds are, you'll walk away from the meeting a bit shaken. Gen Xers tend to have a lot less respect for rules and established policies than boomers do. Xers are readier, if need be, to quit and find employment elsewhere. But they're also eager to think outside the box and get results. What more could you want from a manager in a small business? Maybe the defiance of procedures would capsize the boat in a Fortune 100 corporation--but why should a little rocking cause a big upset in a lean, hungry entrepreneurial business?

"You'll get in trouble," Kaye adds, "only if you refuse to learn from the Gen X mindset. How open are you to growing and learning from everybody around you? That's where it's at, and, for entrepreneurs, it's critical for survival. The savvy boomer is quick to see the benefits of the Xers' perspective."

Is Everybody Happy?

Wondering if your Gen X employees are getting their resumes together? Maybe, maybe not. According to a recent survey issued by F-O-R-T-U-N-E Personnel Consultants, a national franchise network of executive search firms, Xers are pretty satisfied with their current employment situation. Take a look at a few reasons why they're sticking around, and a few reasons why they might have those job-search Web sites bookmarked.




opportunity for career advancement



work environment



work/life balance



rewards (compensation and acknowledgement)










very satisfied



somewhat satisfied



somewhat dissatisfied



not satisfied at all



Source: F-O-R-T-U-N-E Personnel Consultants

Web Site

An online archive that's packed with legal citations and summaries, the Alexander Hamilton Institute's site aims to keep entrepreneurs "from making mistakes that could lead to fines and lawsuits." Have to discipline an employee for a bad attitude? Discovered that an employee falsified information on his employment application and now you want to terminate him? Before taking action, click on the FAQs and sort through the Institute's findings on these and many other crucial employment issues. Written in plain English, the site's documents provide useful counsel that can help keep you out of court.

Contact Sources

Career Systems International, (800) 577-6916,

Claire Raines, (303) 322-0474,

Maurer & Associates, (703) 525-7074,

RainmakerThinking, (203) 772-2002,

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