Are Companies About to Have a Gen X Retention Problem?

Executive Summary

New research reveals Gen X as the “leapfrog” generation, overlooked for promotions at higher rates than their counterparts in other generations. In the past five years, the majority of Gen X leaders (66%) had received only one promotion or none at all — significantly fewer than their younger millennial counterparts (52%) and more senior baby boomers (58%) who were more likely to have received two or more promotions during the same period of time. And while Gen X leaders aren’t being rewarded with promotions as often as their Millennial and Baby Boomer counterparts, they are bearing the brunt of the workload. While Gen X has been loyal up until now, this frustration is burgeoning to a breaking point for Gen X leaders who have advanced to higher-level management roles, with 40% saying that they are contemplating leaving to advance their careers elsewhere. Additionally, nearly one in five Gen X leaders at this level (18%) indicated that their intentions to leave have increased in the last year, a significantly higher proportion than both other generations. Companies risk losing many of their highest performing leaders if they don’t work harder to retain them. Continuing to challenge generational stereotypes, and fostering development and mentorship among multiple generations of leaders will ensure a longer, healthier pipeline of talent for organizations.

Chris Stein/Getty Images

Generation X, represented by cultural icons such as Molly Ringwald, Kurt Cobain, and Alanis Morrissette, was long ago written off as the “slacker generation” — apathetic, cynical, and anti-establishment. Like other generations before them, most Gen Xers have adopted a stronger affiliation for stability and tradition as they’ve aged and had children. But their unambitious reputation may be holding them back in the workplace as new data reveals Gen X as the “leapfrog” generation, overlooked for promotions at higher rates than their counterparts in other generations.

In late 2018, we analyzed data that we collected from more than 25,000  leaders across industries and regions with The Conference Board and Ernst & Young (EY) to examine leadership advancement by generation. We were surprised to see that in the past five years, the majority of Gen X leaders (66%) had received only one promotion or none at all — significantly fewer than their younger millennial counterparts (52%) and more senior baby boomers (58%) who were more likely to have received two or more promotions during the same period of time.

The finding is unexpected, as Generation X — now ranging in age between their late 30s and early 50s — should currently be in the peak stage of their careers, and advancing rapidly. However, many Baby Boomers are deciding to stay in the workforce much longer than previous generations, which may be affecting Gen X’s advancement. More than half of Baby Boomers are reportedly delaying retirement, many until 70 or later, because of financial insecurity and rising healthcare costs. As a result, older workers are not only holding on to their jobs for longer, but are in fact still investing in trying to advance themselves into higher-paying roles.

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Career Transitions

At the same time, Millennials have spent the last several years at the center of media attention. After a sluggish start to their careers during the financial crisis, many are now rapidly looking to make up for lost time and earn more money, especially in the face of high student loan debt. Furthermore, as the first generation to come of age in the digital era, companies have focused a lot of effort into how to nurture Millennial talent in the face of changing work habits and values.

As a result of the attention paid to Baby Boomers and Millennials, Gen X often gets short shrift, a trend that has continued over time. Looking back at our past global leadership surveys, we found that Gen X’s promotion rate has consistently been 20%-30% slower than Millennials. However, we also discovered that Gen X is playing a critical, but often underappreciated role, in the workforce.

Bearing the Brunt

While Gen X leaders aren’t being rewarded with promotions as often as their Millennial and Baby Boomer counterparts, they are bearing the brunt of the workload. Gen X leaders in both first- and mid-level positions manage seven direct reports on average, in comparison to only five direct reports for Millennials holding a management role at the same level.

In addition, Gen X leaders are loyal to their employers, playing a crucial role in helping to retain organizational knowledge. Only 37% said they are contemplating leaving their current role to advance their careers — five percentage points lower than millennial leaders. The difference among these two generations is even more pronounced in early management — with only 34% of Gen X frontline leaders saying that they are contemplating leaving to advance their careers, in comparison to 43% of Millennials at the same level.

Perhaps most importantly, Gen X is playing a critical but overlooked role in bridging the digital divide. While Millennials are often thought of as the most digitally-savvy, Gen X leaders were just as confident in their digital leadership capability. Meanwhile, Gen X also excels in traditional leadership skills that are more critical than ever, showing empathy and driving for execution similar to their Baby Boomer counterparts.

Reaching a Breaking Point

As companies increasingly rely on Gen X without rewarding them with advancement, Gen X is beginning to get frustrated. Currently, only 58% of Gen X feels that they are advancing within their organization at an acceptable rate, in comparison to 65% of Millennials. While Gen X has been loyal up until now, this frustration is burgeoning to a breaking point for Gen X leaders who have advanced to higher-level management roles, with 40% saying that they are contemplating leaving to advance their careers elsewhere. Additionally, nearly one in five Gen X leaders at this level (18%) indicated that their intentions to leave have increased in the last year, a significantly higher proportion than both other generations.

As Millennials and Gen X leaders begin to compete for the same mid-level and even senior-level roles, companies risk losing many of their highest performing leaders if they don’t work harder to retain them. Here are three things organizations can do to retain and develop their Gen X leaders:

Personalize learning and development. The most preferred mode of learning for leaders from all generations is via personalized activities, selected based on their role and development goals. Personalization is essential in a multi-generational workforce, because even within each generation, individual skills and development needs will vary widely. It’s critical to identify what works for each individual’s development.

Provide Gen X leaders with more external guidance. While Gen X leaders generally want to stay with their current companies, they said loud and clear that they are craving more insight and knowledge from mentors outside of their organizations. In fact, 67% of Gen X leaders said that they would like more external coaching, and 57% wanted external development. Employers should invest in helping Gen X leaders participate in outside professional organizations, industry conferences, and other groups to foster relationships with external peers and mentors who can provide coaching and re-instill passion for their careers.

Use data to add objectivity in hiring and promotion practices. Many organizations make hiring and promotion decisions based on managers’ gut feelings about whether the candidate is a good fit for the job, which introduces unconscious bias. For example, a manager may feel that a Millennial will be a better fit for a digital marketing manager, without considering a Gen X leader. Assessments that measure leadership capability and potential can help organizations objectively spot people who have the right skills for the job rather than trusting managers’ instincts alone.

Continuing to challenge generational stereotypes, and fostering development and mentorship among multiple generations of leaders will ensure a longer, healthier pipeline of talent for organizations. Those that do this successfully will be even better prepared as the balance of attention in the workplace inevitably shifts towards the new kid on the block as more of Gen Z moves into the workforce.

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