For decades, members of Generation X have been stuck between two behemoth, attention-draining generations, wondering if they would forever be relegated to back-bench leadership—mere seat-warmers for ambitious millennials waiting for baby boomers to retire. Now, as boomers slowly face their own mortality and aging bodies after a lifetime of devotion to work, there is no longer a need to question whether Gen X will have an opportunity to lead.
Instead, the critical question is: How will Xers lead as law firms face an onslaught of competitive challenges, increased client demands and a retention crisis that threatens their institutional sustainability?
Born between 1965 and approximately 1980, members of Generation X were raised by parents with the highest divorce rate in history, and came of age during periods of recession and downsizing that often left their parents jobless. Their cultural markers included the Clarence Thomas hearings where Anita Hill stoically faced a wall of skeptical senators, a president’s affair with a young intern that led to his redefinition of sex and the traumatizing moment when the Challenger exploded shortly after its launch, as millions of school-aged Gen Xers were watching the first teacher in space begin her journey.
Media articles referred to young Xers as latchkey children who returned from school to an empty house and watched MTV. A generation frequently described as self-reliant, Xers have come to be seen as a generation who learned to mask their emotions behind sardonic humor and a harder shell that can make them seem less approachable to their younger colleagues.
It is estimated that this small generation had a mere three years as the dominant generation in the work force, ceding that ground to millennials in 2015. Because of its small size, Gen Xers viewed law firm life, defined by rigidity, overwork, and the pervasive influence of the boomers’ competitive ways and workaholic tendencies, as a practical necessity. As Xers developed their skills, they were overshadowed by boomers seeking to stay active and engaged in their practice for as long as possible.
Gen X entered and subsequently inherited a work environment that clung to a long-obsolete notion that most households have a spouse at home taking care of family obligations, leaving the primary breadwinner free to work relentlessly long hours as the price of being viewed as a lawyer committed to the firm. They accepted firm policies that offered an illusion of flexibility, yet often joined in sending the subtle messages that minimized utilization of those policies and reinforced the disparity between policy and practice. And they joined in touting diversity and inclusion programs on their websites, even as internal data demonstrated the slow pace of progress.
Xers became astute students of their firm culture, observing hard-working boomers talk about running their firms “like a business,” while eschewing management duties and maintaining practices held within separate firm silos, even when their titles suggested that a more institutional focus was warranted. Boomers serving as practice group leaders, management committee members and managing partners coveted the titles that marked their success in client service and development, but did not embrace the management obligations that should be the focus of these leadership roles.
Because Gen X did not serve as a change agent for a workplace redesign, it could be viewed as a generation comfortable with maintaining the status quo and resistant to rethinking talent management strategies more in concert with evolving demographics, including where and when work is conducted.
In my speaking, training and consulting with firms around the country, I have frequently been approached by young and mid-level lawyers who express concerns in hushed tones and with requests for confidentiality.
These concerns center on a fear that their firm’s culture is not shifting as they’d hoped as younger leaders ascend to power. Indeed, they quietly describe Gen Xers who are dismissive of conversations about diversity and inclusion, equally as unwilling to share origination credits with their colleagues as the boomers they used to complain about, and impatient with younger men and women who, as part of dual career households, are desperately seeking flexibility in order to manage their work and family responsibilities. They also describe emerging Gen X leaders who complain about peers who have not achieved the same level of business development success, even as they are dependent on those same colleagues to do the work of their clients.
These observations do not, however, conform to the way in which Gen Xers tend to see themselves. In my many conversations with members of this generation, they express fear that their time at the helm will be too brief, as ambitious millennials push to assume leadership roles. These Xers do not see themselves as channeling the workaholic tendencies of boomers, but as the overworked, middle child picking up everyone else’s slack. They see their focus on firm economics as stemming from a fear that they have limited time to maximize their own compensation as they witness a clamor from associates who never seem satisfied with their own pay checks.
Moreover, Xers question their own assumption of leadership roles in a rapidly evolving work environment where younger colleagues seem to exude greater confidence in adapting to change. An easy defense mechanism, at least on a subconscious level, is to cling to the status quo, delaying needed changes.
Yet even as law firm partners cling to behaviors they associate with prior successes, they know that continuing to do what has always been done is no longer sustainable. As once venerable institutions collapse or morph into entirely new entities through mergers, it is clear that none are immune to the negative impact of poor business judgments and inadequate talent management. Accordingly, for Gen Xers ascending to key leadership roles, the pressure could not be greater. Their management imperative is to implement sound business structures to go along with the drive for increased revenue. How Gen X Leaders Can Thrive
Whatever the defense mechanisms that may have been built up over the years, I have heard Xers regularly express their desire to serve as proper stewards for the institutions they are inheriting. They respect the dedication of boomer predecessors who built their firms. They also recognize that to be successful, they must not only partner with their more numerous younger millennial colleagues, but ensure that the firm offers a career path that younger generations see as viable.
If they wish to accomplish this, Gen X leaders must redefine their own job descriptions and embrace the myriad talent management responsibilities that will be required for institutional sustainability and excellence in client service. This will require that Xers address issues that can ensure an engaged and stable workplace.
Research on the millennial generation consistently documents commitment to a life in which family responsibilities are not overshadowed by work. In fact, in a study by the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of millennials identified being a good parent as one of the most important things to them, as compared to 42 percent of Gen Xers who answered a similar question in 1997, when they were in the same age range.
There are myriad studies that demonstrate other qualities that millennials seek from their workplaces, including transparency, strong communication with management, teamwork and career development opportunities. But no matter how long the list, the bottom line is that what millennials seek is consistent with what anyone would want from their work environment. The difference is that millennials, the largest demographic in the workforce, are giving voice to career goals and aspirations that would be on anyone’s wish list.
The challenge for Gen X leaders includes the creation of an assignment system that ensures associates at all levels have an equal flow of work and access to practice development opportunities, rather than a free market process that allows partners to assign work to favored lawyers. It includes the implementation of an evaluation system that will minimize the infiltration of unconscious biases that can negatively impact the careers of diverse attorneys. And it requires a promotion system that respects the hard work of lawyers who engage in institution-building activities such as recruiting and retaining talent, as well as ably managing the workload of existing clients.
Gen X leaders must also do the hard work of developing a compensation system that provides a fair process for addressing the inheritance of client credit from retiring partners, includes a process for resolving business origination credit disputes among partners, and provides opportunities for women and diverse lawyers to both participate in business development pitches and be included in the resulting work. Finally, they must create a flexible work environment where policies match the opportunities that technology provides, and where those who utilize such policies are not stigmatized.
Gen Xers finally have an opportunity to create their own legacy. As law firms face an uncertain future, can this generation rise above the frustrations they may have long suppressed and build a firm that can offer a culture that optimizes engagement? As Xers assume the helm, now is their time to, like the little engine that could, emerge from the shadows and pull their firms through the mountain of challenges ahead.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and a visiting scholar at the Boston College Center for Work & Family. She is the author of “You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams” and “Ladder Down: Success Strategies for Lawyers From Women Who Will Be Hiring, Reviewing, And Promoting You.”