Managing Generation X

by Stephen Bray  



Generation X, people born between 1964 and 1989, are our rising stars many of whom are just entering into their prime.    Born into a precarious world when a cold war between East and West threatened atomic destruction and growing up knowing that life is tenuous, they seek instant or early gratification via a marketable academic talent or streetwise ability.


And, Generation X, the progeny of the post WW2 baby boomers, certainly are street wise!   Conceived in an optimistic peacetime against a background of hitherto unknown wealth many Generation Xers were latchkey children[1] [1] disconnected from their extended families and neighbourhood communities.   Some witnessed the separation of their parents before the onset of their teens.  


Generation Xers soon learned, of necessity to be emotionally independent and self- reliant and, with one or both parents working, they demanded material compensation for lack of parental contact.    Then as now children and young people were targeted as consumers with ample spending power.   Generation Xers have been trained to collect branded products as rewards for ‘good behaviour’ from an early age.   The speed of technological advance and force of fashion mean that many of these rewards are ‘hollow’ because they soon become outdated and in need of replacement.    Consumerism   significantly  shaped the Xer’s philosophy. 


The potential talent and creativity of Generation Xers has a hard sugar-coating of destructive self-love.   Many well-educated Xers finding themselves unemployed or in work that did not require a university education, became frustrated and bitter, and now face a potential second defeat with middle age approaching.      


Generation X tends to distrust institutions.    They adapt poorly to the hierarchical systems common in family business, often preferring to create their own employment or even forming their own companies.    Older style management tends to react badly to them, considering them to be ‘spoilt’ or ‘arrogant.’    Traditional managers then react by seeking to exert more controls through micro-management offering salary incentives, or bonuses as a means to push up productivity. Completely failing to appreciate the psychology of Generation X they  then blame the employee when these ‘incentives’ don’t work!    A major criticism of Generation X is a lack of company loyalty.   Xers are seen as people who move rapidly where the rewards are greatest.


Managing Generation X requires a revolutionary approach.   Each employee needs to be carefully evaluated, coached and developed.   Their ability to take initiatives must not simply be acknowledged, it must be positively encouraged with possibilities for immediate implementation.   A Generation Xer expects instant results and rewards.   In many respects this is more akin to the company’s founder than its senior managers.    In today’s digital environment this attitude is precisely what business needs even though the company style will – and must - change.


A criticism of employee initiative is that an incompetent or dishonest employee might easily cause damage.   When Nick Leeson a stockmarket trader, managed to conceal his losses on the Singapore Exchange his employer, Britain’s oldest (merchant?) bank, was ruined.    Complexity and incompetence in the hierarchy of supervision had allowed this to happen.   When a top-heavy micro-managing culture prevails in a context where decisions must be made quickly, decisions and procedures may suffer.   Digital systems flexible enough to enable entrepreneurial flair but capable of intelligently monitoring performance will  reduce costly  errors or  deceit.


Herb Kelleher CEO of Southwest Airlines, operates from a style that he calls ‘Management by Fooling Around’.   He says: “I would sooner have a company that is bound by love, rather than fear.”    Employees currently own 10% of the company through the issue of stock options.  Those whose initiative contributes to the company’s success are known as ‘Heroes of the Heart.’ Southwest Airlines is a very successful company.


Some management pundits argue forcibly that Generation X can only be managed by tearing up traditional employment contracts and engaging highly qualified or experienced project workers.     Employees will be obliged to take charge of their own personal, technical and career development, hoping to become highly qualified ‘knowledge workers.’      In such a system, the Generation Xer is a commodity to be bought and sold on the basis of ability, fashion and quality - as expendable as last year’s brand.  Buying in such freelancers may become the only option for small companies.


Larger companies may prefer to retain their investment in employees by offering more flexible contracts, home working, sabbaticals for development and training, secondment to charitable organisations, or internal transfers where initiatives and creative endeavour may find new challenges.   Generation Xers can be wedded to a company if the employer acknowledges the Xer’s need for immediate results, and importantly  seeks to satisfy the need for love rather than ephemeral reward.  


In Turkey some members of Generation X are re-evaluating Life’s purpose.   Many of the Ag17 Group[2] [2] which continues to provide voluntary support to victims of the earthquakes of 1999, are highly skilled professionals from industry.   The Internet enabled them to respond to the first shock within four days.   During later shocks they were on the road with equipment, manpower and support within four hours.   Yet many of these people are frustrated in the workplace by outmoded management practices and self-interested competitive thinking.   One member of the group said: “Before the earthquake, I thought life was about a good education, a good job, a new car, a comfortable flat and furniture.   Now I know that it could all disappear in a moment.    It doesn’t stop me buying a new car, or carpet, but I recognise that the rewards of life lie elsewhere.”


Seven Ways to Bring Your Xers on-board

         1) Treat individuals with the respect that you would give the boss!

Xers share the entrepreneurial mindset, but it needs to be developed.  

2) Simplify the company, and share information digitally.

 Xers need fast responses and the information to act.   They don't like to have to manage multiple layers of managers it wastes their time and squanders their talent.

3) Create teams around projects, and keep them focused.

Xers have short attention spans; to keep them engaged they need to feel a hub of communication.  

4) Coach individuals in manager management.

Xers will develop as people, as they learn to listen and appreciate others.    Generation Xers will benefit from mentors who can help to rise above the office politics and competitive power-plays that drives the previous generation of employees.  

5) Trust your systems and your staff

For the Xers, their work is the most important in the company.   Keep yourself informed, and show interest but let the Xer manage the details.  

6) Encourage creativity

Use your Xers as a 'corporate brain'; second them into looking at issues beyond their normal areas of expertise.   This exchange of ideas will benefit everybody involved. In this way new ideas will be introduced into the company, and the Xer will learn new concepts to bring back into their daily work.  

7) Acknowledge achievement at individual and group levels

Create projects where individuals may shine, but are more likely to do so through teamwork, than individual effort.   Then reward both. In that way everybody gains


[1][1]   The term is used  sociologically to denote children, both of whose parents were at work, who had their own house keys and would be responsible for themselves after school until a parent returned.

[2][2]   Derived from the date August 17, 1999.

This article was originally published in Executive Excellence Magazine.   Text Copyright ©2001 Stephen Bray. Stephen Bray may be contacted at