When MTV Goes CEO
by Susan M.Keaveney
1 What happens when the “unmanageables” become managers?
2 “Who will take the helm?” is one question that will keep CEOs awake at night in the next millennium. Most wonder what corporate culture in services firms will look like when the 40 million Gen Xers in the work force — now twenty-and thirty-something employees —
take over as managers.
3 Much has been written about Gen X employees, most of it negative. Early studies accused them of being arrogant, uncommitted, unmanageable slackers — disrespectful of
authority, scornful of paying dues — tattooed and pierced youths who “just don’t care.
Recent interpretations, however, offer some new and somewhat different insights. Arrogance or Independence
4 As Gen Xers have been characterized as the “latchkey kids” of the 70’s and80’s; often left on their own by divorced and/or working parents, these young people became adept at handling things on their own and in their own ways. Many became self-motivating, self-sufficient, and creative problem-solvers. Their independence, which baby-boom managers sometimes interpret as arrogance, may also reflect a need to feel trusted to get a job done.
5 As employees, Gen Xers enjoy freedom to manage their own schedules. They don’t watch a clock and don’t want their managers to do so. Whether work is done from nine-to-five or noon-to-eight — at home, in the office, or over lattes — is irrelevant to this
group because Gen Xers are results-oriented. They seek guidance, inspiration, and vision from their managers but otherwise prefer to be left alone between goal-setting and deliverables.
6 Many Gen Xers excel at developing innovative solutions, but need clear, firm deadlines to set boundaries on their creative freedom. They have been known to bristle under micromanagement but flourish with coaching and feedback.
7 Gen X grew up with rapidly changing technology and the availability of massive amounts of information. Many developed skills at parallel processing or sorting large amounts of information quickly (which is sometimes interpreted as a short attention span). Most are skilled at understanding and using technologies, adapt quickly to new platforms, and are practiced at learning through technological media. They value visual as well as verbal communication.
8 Gen X employees excel in a technologically advanced environment. They demand state-of-the-art capabilities, such as telecommuting, teleconferencing, and electronic mail, in order to work efficiently and effectively. To baby-boom managers this may seem to be a preference for impersonal means of communicating, living and working, but Gen Xers do not see it that way; for example, they have modified electronic language and symbolism to express emotions such as surprise, anger and pleasure.
Get a Life
9 Gen X employees don’t live to work, they work to live. They place a high value on prototypical family values that they feel they missed. Having observed their parents trade personal lives for “the good of the company,” this group wants balance in their lives,
demanding time for work, play, family, friends, and spirituality. Gen X employees are skeptical of forgoing the needs of today for a later, uncertain payoff.
10 When on the job market, Gen Xers will openly ask life-balance questions. This can be a turnoff for unprepared interviewers used to classic baby-boomer scripts featuring such lines as “How can I best contribute to the company?” and “My greatest weakness is that I work too hard.”
11 In contrast, Gen Xers want to know “What can you do to help me balance work, life,
and family?” They expect companies to understand and respect their needs as individuals with important personal lives. This focus on “getting a life” causes some to label them as slackers. Viewed from another perspective, however, Gen Xers could be seen as balanced individuals who can set priorities within time limits.
Just Do It
12 Gen X grew up with scandals in politics (Watergate, Whitewatergate), literature (The Education of Little Tree), journalism (Janet Cooke), business (Ivan Boesky, Michael Milliken), entertainment (Milli Vanalli), professional sports (Pete Rose, Tonya Harding), and religion (Jim and Tammy Bakker). It’s not surprising that they’re cynical about authority, irreverent about hierarchy, hate bureaucracy, loathe hidden agendas, and disdain politicking. They demand honesty and clarity, and respect substance over style.
13 Gen X employees tend to focus on the big picture, to emphasize outcomes over process or protocol. They respect clear, unambiguous communication — whether good news or bad.
Gen Xers prefer tangible rewards over soft words. Cash incentives, concert tickets, computer equipment, or sports outings go farther with this group than “attaboys,” plaques, or promises of future rewards.
14 Growing up in a period of corporate downsizing and right-sizing fostered Gen X beliefs that the future depends on their resumes rather than loyalty to any one company. Not surprisingly, Gen X employees seek challenging projects that help them develop a portfolio of skills.
15 What might appear to a baby-boom manager as job-hopping can be interpreted as Gen Xer’s pattern of skills acquisition. Similarly, a refusal to just “do time” in an organization, often interpreted as disloyalty and a lack of commitment, may come from an intolerance of busywork and wasted time.
16 Gen Xers will thrive in learning organizations where they can embrace creative challenges and acquire new skills. Smaller companies and work units will be valued for the opportunities they provide for Gen X employees to apply their diverse array of skills and, thereby, prove their individual merit.
17 Managers who enact their roles as teachers and facilitators rather than “bosses” will get the most from their Gen X employees. Training is valued by this group but should be immediately relevant: the best training seems to be self-directed or tied to self-improvement, personal development, and skills-building.
18 Some baby-boom managers hope that the differences between themselves and their Gen X employees will fade away as less-conforming behaviors are abandoned with age and
experience. But what if the wished-for assimilation into corporate culture — as presently
defined by baby-boomers — doesn’t occur? Or, what if, more likely, the assimilation is less
than complete? What vestiges of Gen X’s culture will be maintained? What will be absorbed, what will fade away?
Unmanageable or Entrepreneurial?
19 As a group, Gen X was not predicted to become “the establishment,” yet the establishment will claim them nevertheless. Having rebelled against standard business hours and micromanagement, they might find it difficult to make such demands of their subordinates. Having distained bosses, they might be uncomfortable being bosses themselves; having shunned hierarchy and titles, they may find their own managerial monikers awkward to bear.
20 Their emphasis on independence, combined with technological expertise, suggested that Gen X managers will support continued growth in telecommuting. This trend could put particular stresses on services firms that require contact personnel on-site to service customers. However, the creative problem-solving excellence of Gen X managers, combined with their technological prowess, will support new approaches to the issue of front-line service coverage.
21 Their life-balance beliefs suggest that Gen X managers will support family-friendly corporate policies. Firms will experience a continued drive toward flexible work schedules and reduced hours that benefit both Gen Xers (who strive for balance throughout their careers) and baby boomers (who put off “life” until their career dues were paid). Firms will manage differences in needs for employee benefits with cafeteria plans that allow Gen Xers to select benefits that support early family concerns (insurance, child care) and allow baby boomers to focus on 401ks[U.S.] and retirement plans.
22 Gen Xers’ “just do it” attitudes and impatience with corporate cultures that seem to support style over substance indicate that Gen X managers will support a more casual workplace. Expect “dress-down Fridays” to expand to encompass the entire workweek, with
formal business attire required on an as-needed basis such as in the presence of customers.
(Gen Xers will respect social niceties when they agree that there’s a good reason.)
23 Some “free-agent” Gen Xers will ultimately be unable or unwilling to make the transition to corporate manager. As Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoons make painfully clear, many Gen Xers fear ending up in dead-end support jobs, especially when they see the road to the top clogged with baby-boom managers. We are likely to see many choose an alternative lifestyle by becoming entrepreneurs. Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 80%of Americans starting their own businesses today are between ages 18 and 34. The trend may dilute corporate pools of promotable junior managers but provide a needed infrastructure for corporate outsourcing.
Culture Clash or Diversity
24 Other Labor Bureau Statistics show that in the next decade one in three workers will be over age 55. This has tremendous implications for a burgeoning culture clash between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers within corporations.
25 Facing the issue squarely and approaching Gen X workplace issues as issues of cultural diversity are necessary to get the most from the two groups of managers. Firms must understand, respect, and respond to the needs of each group. Lines of communication must be opened and maintained. For example, mentoring programs that pair the institutional memory and experience of baby boomers with the technological prowess and creativity of
Gen Xers can help to foster mutual respect between the two groups.
26 Before mid-millennium, Gen Xers will be the CEOs of the future. This is a time when Gen X’s visionary qualities will be most valued by firms. Will their anger with pollution, devastation of natural resources, and waste inspire them to responsible environmental stewardship? Will their disgust with corruption and scandal stimulate ethical corporate leadership? Will their experiences as the forgotten generation motivate them to create supportive corporate cultures? Will their experiences as a marginal group help them to envision, and sponsor, corporate cultural diversity? Only time will tell.