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Generation X

Board Of Directors: Here To Stay Or Hopelessly Passé?

I met a colleague yesterday over coffee who specializes in board governance. We shared our experiences working with boards of directors, and both of us (as Xers) agreed the board concept has little to no appeal to our generation and the generation that follows.

I met a colleague yesterday over coffee who specializes in board governance. We shared our experiences working with boards of directors, and both of us (as Xers) agreed the board concept has little to no appeal to our generation and the generation that follows. Most – if not all – of our clients are experiencing great difficulty in recruiting and retaining young professionals to board roles. Which leads me to wonder: what will happen to boards of directors once the Baby Boomers retire?Throughout the nineteenth century and before, there are examples of corporations, non-profits, and associations utilizing boards of directors. Yet, despite the passage of time the concept of the board of directors hasn’t evolved one iota. The concept remains much the same as it did more than 100 years ago.Needless to say, Xers and Ys find a number of faults with the board concept and would rather pull their hair out than serve a single term on a board. As my colleague put it, the Xers that do get involved in the process are "there just long enough to realize they don’t need this in their lives and quickly leave".Here are two characteristics of boards that really turn Xers and Ys off:

  • Lack of trustAs a rule, Xers and Ys don’t trust people they don’t have relationships with, largely due to the social events that took place during their youth: high divorce rates, terrorism, massive layoffs in corporate America, and business and political leaders failing to deliver on their promises.Boards of directors have a bad reputation as entities consumed with negativity, distrust, political undermining, and people who use the board more as a resume-booster than a service opportunity. In a number of corporate scandals during the 1990s, one notable feature revealed in subsequent investigations was that boards were not aware of the activities of the managers that they hired or the true financial state of the corporation.I conduct surveys of younger professionals, and they often describe their organization’s board of directors as cliques or people with a dishonorable regard for service.In short, they don’t trust their organization’s leaders and have no interest in joining them.
  • Unreasonable expectationsWhile the Baby Boomers thrive in commitment, Xers and Ys resist it. Most board members are required to attend long or numerous meetings and engage in lengthy discussions about topics that aren’t relevant or meaningful.I recently worked with an association that allows board members to serve up to 11 years and requires them to attend meetings that are four days long. Likewise, my colleague is working with an association’s board that has been engaged in debates about what to serve on the vegetarian menu at the conference.It’s no surprise these organizations can’t get Xers and Ys to step up to the plate!Xers and Ys want the time they spend away from their careers or families to be filled with relevance, meaning, and purpose. They want to make decisions and make change and know their efforts are making a difference. They want a foreseeable beginning and end to their work, and they expect recognition and rewards for their contributions.

What does all this mean for the future of corporations, non-profits, associations, and their boards of directors?I think it means change. Significant change in what a board does, how it operates, its purpose, and its outcomes.A lot has happened in the past 100 years. Most everything that was in existence during the last century either was improved or became antiquated.If nothing is done to improve our organizational leadership processes, then our boards of directors will also become antiquated and literally die out — because I assure you, the Xers and Ys certainly aren’t going to spend 11 years serving on a board or sitting through meetings that focus on menu options.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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