Generation X has waited a long time to assume the mantle of corporate leadership in America, and its time is largely here. The Baby Boomers are retiring and leaving the work force, and that means we’re now getting the first generation to take the reins with a real understanding of the digital landscape.
Except . . . not exactly.
Generation X is not like your grandparents, many of whom were flummoxed by e-mail and needed the concept of a web site explained to them repeatedly. The X-ers don’t resist technology and they don’t sit around complaining that things were better when people wrote letters.
They recognize the value of the digital revolution and they’re mostly comfortable with it.
But even so, the X-ers are not the first truly digital generation to assume corporate leadership for the simple reason that – unlike the Millennials who will be coming after them – they’re not digital natives.
Generation X is the last generation that changed the channel by hand. It’s the last generation that actually did mail letters to friends. It’s the last generation that still thinks of a phone as mainly a thing you use to make calls, as opposed to an all-purpose device that you can pretty much use to run your entire life.
It’s not that Generation X doesn’t get it. They get it. But their frame of reference is entirely different from that of Millennials, because the Millennials are digital natives. They’ve never known anything else. And that will influence the way both generations think about business and life.
Generation X remembers when the Internet was a revolutionary innovation, changing everything. They remember when buying things from a computer screen rather than going to a store and picking it out by hand was not even a concept anyone could grasp. And while they’ve adapted to the digital age, the point is that they had to adapt. The first generation to take leadership of corporate America with a knowledge of all things digital will also be the last generation to remember what it was like in the analog age.
What that means is that Generation X leaders, by and large, still operate with a default analog mindset. It’s how they grew up thinking and it’s what comes most naturally to them. That is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but it’s definitely a thing and it will impact the kind of leadership Generation X practices.
Sometimes that’s as simple as preferring a face-to-face meeting, or calling you before texting to see if you’re free to take a call. Hey, in 1995, if you needed to talk to someone you just called them! Millennials may find it rude, but the Gen X-ers know it’s how we did things for the better part of a century.
It will also impact attitudes toward technological advances. Consider Slack. This new platform is becoming very popular, and it’s considered by many a next-step advance beyond e-mail. It allows for more group discussions, in real time, and easier sharing of information. The inventors of Slack clearly believe
they’ve created something that can make e-mail obsolete, and much of the Millennial generation agrees with them.
To Generation X, this is insanity. Why would we need something to replace e-mail? It’s way better than snail mail and we’ve all got it installed on our computers. We all understand it and we’re all used to it.
Generation X looks at Slack and asks, “Why do we need to use Slack?” The Millennials respond: “Why the heck aren’t you using Slack?”
The generational perspectives help make both questions understandable. E-mail was a huge leap forward when it burst on the scene in the mid-‘90s. It was a real challenge for everyone to get used to it, and it changed a lot of things. Before e-mail, there were courier services who would make good money driving documents from place to place because people needed information right away. Now I suppose they’re all Uber drivers.
To Generation X, adapting to e-mail was a once-in-a-lifetime heavy lift. They figure that should do them for the next 100 years or so.
But to Millennials, e-mail might as well be 1,000 years old. They don’t care that it’s better than letters because they have no memory of letters. They’re looking for the next advancement, and that’s good. You don’t want a generation that isn’t interested in advances and progress.
As Generation X assumes leadership, with the Millennials nipping at their heels, it’s important for Gen-X to question some of its own assumptions – about the way work should be done, and about the ways people interact with each other in the business world. There’s something to be said for preserving longstanding practices that are in danger of being lost to technology.
But not everything you remember as the best is necessarily still the best, and not everything is dumb just because it’s a fad. If Generation X can combine its historical knowledge, its ability to adapt and a willingness to hear what the next generation has to say, it could be one of the greatest leadership generations ever. It’s transitional for sure, and the transition could be amazing. They could set things up beautifully for the Millennials to eventually take charge.
At which point Generation Z starts questioning everything the Millennials believe, and it all starts again.
Written by: Wade Wyant
Red Wagon Advisors