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Gen X programmed to lead, but reluctant to do so

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Those born between 1960 and 1981 may become known as the "lost generation" in the workplace.

Labeled Gen X, this age group was expected to claim positions of authority and run the business world when the baby boom generation headed for the exits.

Didn't happen.

At least not yet.

The X-ers, caught between the boomers and the equally big baby boom echo, Generation Y, "continue to be overshadowed in the workplace," said Warren Cinnick, a succession planning expert.

Cinnick, director of the PricewaterhouseCoopers People and Change Advisory Services practice, has analyzed extensive data about generational status on the job.

"In the past decade, boomers slowed down their retirements," Cinnick said in a recent phone interview from his Chicago office. "Business owners pulled back on defined benefit plans, retirement income became less predictable, and boomers hung on."

Whether motivated by love of work or financial need, boomer bosses didn't vacate the job in predicted numbers.

You can always cite exceptions, but in the main, Cinnick said, Gen X has dealt with two powerful demographic and social forces that make it a sandwich generation in the work force.

Many Gen Xers grew up with divorced parents or were latchkey kids from either one- or two-parent families. Many saw their parents ousted from longtime employment in downsizings.

Those realities caused a "two strikes against authority" mentality, Cinnick said. "Gen X won't step up quickly to be leaders. They don't see the payoff."

Instead, he said, Gen Xers are more likely to gravitate to jobs where they become subject-matter experts rather than aiming for the top of office hierarchies.

And even those who aspire to top management tend to reach for power only on their own time frames — after they've dealt with family priorities.

That wreaks havoc with some succession planning, Cinnick said. Among the Xers, outstanding candidates for promotion often decline opportunities, not once but sometimes twice or more.

"The trick for employers is to be patient with the good ones," Cinnick said, adding that many are worth waiting for; they tend to be good team players but don't assert themselves as loudly as Gen Y.

Ironically, Gen X may be programmed to lead. They're well educated, technologically savvy and collaborative.

And, Cinnick said, they're the "built for color TV" generation. They grew up with "pretty images of successful workers on TV" and easily look the part.

Diane Stafford is the workplace and careers columnist at the Kansas City Star.

Gen X programmed to lead, but reluctant to do so 01/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 1:27pm]
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