The X Factor: From Obscurity to Prominence

Gen Xer working on laptop

The world is at the onset of a generational power shift. Members of the Baby Boom generation are retiring in record numbers, their former leadership positions in industry and government assumed by members of Generation X.

Often overshadowed by their larger generational cohorts, Baby Boomers and Millennials, Gen X professionals reaching the top rungs of power have an opportunity to break a regrettable cycle. Whenever control shifts from one generation to another, the hope among many is that those now in power will remember their youthful idealism in wanting a more equitable and diverse society. But these high hopes are soon forgotten.

Like every generation in its formative years, Baby Boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, were highly idealistic, perceiving ideas and values as more important than the ownership of material things. As children of World War II veterans whose own formative years occurred during the Great Depression, Boomers were expected to remake the world.

In the 1960s and 1970s, their youthful commitment to change was evident in their opposition to the Vietnam War and impassioned support for the civil rights and environmental movements. Over time, however, their storied idealism devolved into inward-focused careerism. Not every Boomer, of course, but certainly more than a few. This gradual deterioration of idealism is not unusual. As consumer crusader Ralph Nader said in a 2018 radio interview, “The only true aging is the loss of idealism.”

Members of Generation X, the generation born between 1965 and 1979, had similar ideals and values as their parents in their formative years, believing it was possible to achieve good things and change the world. Put down as slackers and whiners in their teenage years, Gen Xers certainly had reason to question the value of toiling for companies that were operated primarily to produce profits for investors and shareholders, irrespective of the needs of employees and society at large.

Now that Gen Xers are taking the reins of power, will their youthful idealism wane, calcifying into self-interest and greed? Or is it possible that this generation, born of unique circumstances like all generations, will take a stand to make a lasting difference? They certainly are poised to do so. Let’s explore this demographic cohort, dubbed “Generation X” by Canadian writer Douglas Coupland in his novel, Generation X: Tales for An Accelerated Culture, and its singular childhood.

Coupland derived the use of the letter “X” in his title from a 1983 book, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by cultural historian Paul Fussell, who described an “X category” person as someone who questioned authority, money, status, and other societal pressures.

Unlike Baby Boomers, many Gen Xers were the children of divorced parents who both worked, making them the first dual-income families. Gen X children were the original “latchkey kids”: they came home from school to little or no adult supervision, and, in some cases, cared for their younger siblings.

Gen Xers’ children also were (and are) more ethnically diverse than prior generations, which arguably factored into their youthful idealism on social issues. Studies suggest these various factors have combined to make Gen Xers more independent, self-reliant, resourceful, skeptical, flexible, and adaptable — good characteristics to have in leading a company or a representative body of voters.

Though not digital natives per se, Gen Xers are digitally savvy: we’re the first generation to have grown up playing video games, use the internet as kids, watch 24-hour cable TV, digitally socialize on bulletin boards, and even blog (before it had a name). As young and middle-aged adults, Gen Xers also have launched more business startups than the “bookend” generations (although Millennials are catching up fast).

Gen Xers have a compelling amalgamation of sociopolitical and technological expertise, critical thinking skills, and our natural skepticism and flexibility to remake businesses into socially responsible entities that emphasizes the importance of all people before profits. This lofty principle will require my generation, unlike previous generations, to retain our youthful idealism now that we hold the keys, practicing social awareness, empathy, care for others, and the blending of life and work.

The reins of leadership are passing from the hands of Baby Boomers into those of Gen Xers. While most corporate board members are Baby Boomers, Gen Xers are increasingly taking the helm of companies. Approximately 68% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 were Gen Xers in 2018. The number of Gen Xer CEOs is likely higher than that by now, despite the smaller percentage of people in this generation (64.9 million), compared with Boomers (70.6 million) and Millennials (72.2). Generation X presently tallies 164 members in the U.S. Congress, with Boomers holding 298 seats in Congress, Millennials holding fewer than 70 seats, and members of the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945, picking up the remainder.

In the next few years, more power will be transferred to Gen Xers. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the Great Resignation it fueled in 2021 are compelling Boomers to retire in ever-growing numbers. Nearly 30 million Boomers exited the workforce in the third quarter of 2020, and an October 2021 online survey suggested that 75% of Boomers are planning to retire at age 65.

Given their demographic position stuck between retiring Boomers and Millennials on the ascent, Gen Xers have been called the “sandwich” generation, or as the Pew Research Center once depicted us — “America’s neglected ‘middle child.’” Obviously, Gen X is much more than these confining descriptions suggest.

At a time when society demands Corporate America to become more socially responsible, my hope is that Gen Xers will give as much attention to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) goals as we provide to pure business objectives. These aims are not mutually exclusive, as the creation of economic value creates social value. Given my generation’s history of working alongside women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals, the odds look good. It is our turn now.