In the Corner Office, Life Doesn't Suck for Generation X

Photograph by Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

With a life script that supposedly goes from latchkey kid to distrustful teenage slacker to recession-battered adult, Generation X hardly seems like management material. But those born between 1965 and 1980 think they’re best equipped to manage, according to a new study from Ernst & Young. What’s more, baby boomers and millennials agree. Not only were Gen X workers viewed as best at generating revenue and building teams, they were considered least likely to be considered “difficult to work with” or “cynical and condescending.”

It’s a rare and surprising vote of support for a generation that’s used to seeing the spotlight drift to the larger pools of people on either side of it. The EY findings, based on a survey of 1,215 professionals outside the company, found the generation raised on MTV scored points for being more inclusive and flexible than its older peers, while having stronger communication skills and vision than Gen Y. As EY partner Karyn Twaronite puts it, they’re in a “sweet spot,” viewed as young enough to be adept at new technologies but experienced enough to lead.

For Twaronite, a member of Gen X herself, the findings reflect the reality that the thirties and forties are considered prime years to take on management responsibilities. The challenge, however, is finding that opportunity when you’re one of about 46 million people squeezed between two groups that are each 80 million strong. Ahead are the boomers, who occupy key positions and show less inclination to retire than earlier generations. Coming up in the rear are millennials, flush with parental support and examples of peer success.

That means that Gen X’s moment to shine in leadership may prove all-too-brief. More than half of those surveyed by EY said they think Gen Y will be well positioned to manage by 2020, up from 27 percent today. With almost three-quarters of respondents saying they’re not comfortable with younger employees managing older ones, that puts aspiring Gen X leaders in an awkward position. In most companies, they’re in the minority. If they don’t get a chance to lead now, they may find themselves passed over several years from now when their younger cohort is ready to step up. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time Gen Xers have been ignored.