The original “latchkey kids” are grown up, in the boss’s seat and ready to make the rules. If that’s OK?
The average age of incoming C.E.O.s is around 54. While American government remains squarely in the hands of baby boomers — and while its leadership, at least in certain branches, becomes noticeably older — corporate boardrooms are undergoing a transition. It’s Gen X’s moment, that generation most known for being crowded out of sweeping cultural age analyses by millennials on one end and boomers on the other.
Or as Patton Oswalt, a Gen X comedian, put it: “Gen X is trending, which probably means that, uh … eh, whatever. Nevermind.”
There are plenty of fair critiques of those generational analyses. People are far more complicated than the year they were born — in Gen X’s case, some time between 1965 and 1980. But it’s still true that with new leaders often come new rules. For the country’s newest chief executives, that has meant more trust in flexible and informal ways of working.
Take Darby Equipment, a manufacturing company in Tulsa, where remote flexibility for years seemed like an alien concept. The former chief executive, Bob Darby, reigned the company, a family business, with a commitment to an in-person regimen. People were expected to show up on time, sit at their desks and stay until evening, no matter what was going on in their personal lives.
His sons, Ryan and Bobby Darby, nudged their father to consider when he might step down. But the elder Mr. Darby couldn’t imagine the company functioning without him. Employees called him the “pacesetter”: He arrived every morning before 8 a.m., which encouraged others to do the same. When Mr. Darby’s sons asked him whether he’d like to carve out more time for golfing and fishing, he scoffed at the idea.
“He was basically telling us he didn’t think we were going to be able to keep all the balls in the air,” said Ryan Darby, 47.
During the pandemic, the elder Mr. Darby decided to retire. His sons stepped into company leadership with a fresh set of notions about where and when the work could get done. They’re more comfortable with some employees working remotely.
Ryan Darby, whose son is a tight end for the football team and an outfielder for the baseball team, tries to attend all the games he can: “What is the purpose of having a successful business if you don’t take time to enjoy your life?” he said.
“Reality Bites,” a 1994 coming-of-age film about straggling Gen Xers, is about to turn 30. The cubicle dwellers of the 1999 comedy “Office Space” are now old enough to be the bosses they once detested. TLC’s hits are classified as “throwbacks.” A Walkman music player is basically vintage. The culture that defined Gen X is aging — and so are Gen Xers themselves, now grown-up enough to run the workplace.
The labor force participation of people over 55 was near its lowest rate in 15 years last fall. And the average age of incoming chief executives has been on the decline.
Research from Stanford points to generational divides on remote work. Workers over 55 (mostly boomers) prefer to work remotely around 35 percent of the time, while workers in their early twenties (Gen Z) preferred to be remote about 45 percent of the time and workers in their 30s and 40s preferred to work from home closer to half the time. In other words, Gen Xers have become the unlikely warriors for flexible work.
Of course, stage of life comes into play. A survey of 120,000 American workers, also from Stanford, found that desired remote work levels were 7 percent higher among those living with children under 18.
“Gen X are the latchkey kids — we grew up very independent,” said Robert Glazer, 47, the founder of the marketing company Acceleration Partners. “Gen X was one of the first generations to expect a little more from work, trying to set boundaries but not expecting the workplace to change around them.”
When companies were first calling people back to the office, many assumed that the youngest workers would be the most rebellious. The reality has been more complicated. In many cases, executives say, young people are eager to be back in the office and surrounded by colleagues, while middle-aged employees with child and elder care responsibilities are fighting to keep their afternoon freedoms.
David Burkus, a consultant and the author of “Under New Management,” advises dozens of companies on management issues, including return-to-office plans. He’s seen firsthand the generational divisions underlying them. This was particularly salient for a law firm he recently consulted for to send some 700 lawyers back to the office.
“Baby boomers, who were predominantly empty nesters, were pushing to get people back in the office,” he said. “Then you had Gen Xers and geriatric millennials pushing for flexibility.”
“I went into it expecting it to be clear that the younger you are, the more flexibility you want,” he added. “I didn’t find that.”
Joy Meier, who runs human resources for the 4,000 employees at E2open, a supply chain software company, has also watched those generational differences unfold as she surveyed employees about their return-to-office preferences.
Ms. Meier, 49, found that many young workers wanted to be in person, sometimes even five days a week, describing a sense of loneliness at home and an eagerness to jump start their careers; a handful even departed the company in pursuit of more in-office time. Many senior employees wanted to be in the office, too, because that was how they’d spent their whole lives. (Some also had less comfort with technology.) Then there were the Gen Xers, like Ms. Meier, who has four children at home and embraced the company’s hybrid policy, which requires most staffers to come in three days a week.
“There’s definitely more of a desire for flexibility among people who are advanced in their careers and have family commitments,” she said.
She recalled years before the pandemic watching a female colleague anxiously negotiate for the ability to leave the office at 3 p.m. to pick up her children from school. “She was so happy when her boss approved that,” Ms. Meier said. “That was a unique thing back then.”
At Darby Equipment, the company’s new pacesetter is Aaron Soto, the director of operations. Mr. Soto, 44, is also sensitive to the workplace’s shifting generational norms. He recognizes that some of the junior employees want positive reinforcement frequently, he said, so he keeps a spreadsheet tracking how many thank-you cards each employee has received from managers.
Of course, talking about generational divisions can easily backslide into finger pointing. Management experts point out that most of the variance in workplace performance isn’t about how old someone is, but how good their boss is. Broad generational brushstrokes can paper over the deeper conversations needed between workers and their bosses.
“The single best predictor for whether folks will succeed at work is the competence of their boss, regardless of generation,” said Melissa Nightingale, a co-founder of Raw Signal Group, a management training firm. “That boss is on the hook for their on-boarding, their feedback, their career growth and more. If the boss can’t do those things, they’re screwed.”
Still, when old bosses leave and new ones arrive, there are opportunities for rethinking. Workers who benefit from leaving the office early for school pickup can say so. Workers who want more feedback can ask for it. There’s a chance to look at the way things have always been done and ask: Why?
“A lot of experts make it sound like you’re putting people in boxes based on their birth year, but what we want people to understand is that generations are clues, not a box,” said Jason Dorsey, a workplace researcher. “Just because you’re born in a certain year doesn’t mean someone knows everything about you.”
Generations change as they grow up, too. For years, Gen X seemed defined by a vexed sense of aimlessness. As Winona Ryder’s character in “Reality Bites” puts it: “I was really going to be something by the age of 23.” The angst, for many, is fading. Cue a sense of workplace confidence; they became something.
Twilla Brooks, 48, recalled that when she was starting her career, as an assistant buyer for Robinsons-May, a former department store chain, she had to be in the office before her boss arrived and stay until her boss left. She raced through Los Angeles traffic before 8 a.m., petrified of letting her manager down, because in her words: “That was what you needed to do in order to make it.”
Last year, Ms. Brooks left an executive role at Walmart to start her own marketing company. Now, with no office, she decides where and when to work. “There’s a lot more flexibility in my schedule,” she said. “Because it’s my schedule.”