Generation X Managing Generation X

by Claire Raines

The ranks of supervision and management are filling with members of Generation X – born between 1960 and 1980. Depending on the industry, approximately 30% to 90% of first-line supervisors are in their twenties and thirties. And this generation comprises about 10% of general, district, and corporate management today.

In the service industries, these managers are supervising a group of employees who are mostly members of their own generation. About half of all supervisors and managers will tell you that managing their own cohorts is easy. Because they share the same history, there is empathy—and they understand what makes each other tick. Says Beth Cong, 25, Assistant Manager at the Benetton store in Palo Alto, California, "They’re still young. They listen, and they do what they’re told." The other half finds managing members of their own generation especially challenging. "They’re not like me," some say. "They’re not committed. They don’t show up on time. And they won’t listen." Even those who find managing their cohorts easy admit that most of their employees have a work ethic that differs from their own. Young supervisors and managers have typically "paid their dues" for 6 or 7 years, working long hours and weekends, to get where they are today. 

It’s a bit of a paradox. Managers say their employees are often not willing to put in the hours. At the same time, they don’t understand why they can’t be managers themselves. 
The list of what Generation X supervisors find difficult about managing employees in their late teens, twenties, and even early thirties differs very little from the list older managers cite. They say their young employees often:

  • are not reliable.
  • are not willing to work long hours.
  • think in terms of "job" – not "career."
  • have unrealistic expectations about raises and promotions.

What seems to be a non-issue for Gen X managers is the "credibility gap." You might think, since they are not much older—and, in some cases, are younger than those they supervise— they would have problems establishing authority. But this generally isn’t a problem. Generation Xers tend to consider authority a "whatever" kind of thing anyway. They don’t give their respect to others based just on titles. After all, they grew up watching authority figures (Nixon, Reverend Baker, divorcing parents) become all-too-human, complete with imperfections. Nor do Gen X supervisors expect special treatment based on titles. They fully expect to earn every ounce of respect given them.

Interviews with a number of highly successful Gen-X managers showed they have some common traits that can be helpful to all managers. Consider the following guidelines for recruiting, motivating, and retaining Generation X employees:

  • Avoid judging. When we find that others’ work ethics differ from ours, it is easy to label it "poor" or even "nonexistent." Recognize differences, but don’t judge them. Instead, look for things you have in common. 
  • Accommodate individual needs whenever possible. Beth Cong says, "I’m pretty flexible. If they need to be an hour late, that’s okay. So when I ask for favors (‘Can you come in on your day off?’), they usually help me out." 
  • Demonstrate competence. It is the quickest way to earn the respect of Gen X employees. 
  • Forgive impatience. If your people are anxious for raises and promotions, chalk it up to the energy of youth. Young people have always wanted it NOW. 
  • Be a coworker until someone requires a boss. Evan DeFoe, 28, became a manger at TGI Friday’s in Baltimore when he was 22. Since he had been buddies with his staff for 2 1/2 years, he decided to "do the power trip thing," he says. "I went out of my way to catch people making mistakes. I acted like a boss. But it was unsuccessful. People argued with me, and I made the waitresses cry. Now I’m their co-worker until they ask me to be a boss. I allow people to make their own mistakes and then fix them themselves." 
  • Celebrate. Create fun events and a stimulating environment. When people are having fun, they tend to be more themselves – and they perform better. Hold special events to celebrate the heroes on your staff. This will make you a hero in their eyes!

Generation X’s Preferred Work Environment

Xers as Managers


Gen X managers tend to:

  • be highly competent technically. 
  • have a somewhat lower "need-to-be-liked" factor than older managers.
  • bring a fresh perspective.
  • have a systems/big-picture orientation.
  • hold a strong work ethic.
  • care less about status and power than some of their older counterparts. 


Gen X managers tend to:

  • show impatience with poor performers.
  • have a hard time identifying with young employees who don’t share their work ethic.
  • be less "seasoned" in their decision-making (nothing they can do to change their age!).
  • give needy employees less attention than they require.