Generational Dynamics in the Boardroom

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During today’s keynote address at the 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference, Chuck Underwood—founder and principal of The Generational Imperative, a consulting firm that provides training and research on generational demographics to businesses and governmental officials—shared some key takeaways on how generational demographics affect corporate governance. He began by sharing three key points about generational dynamics.

  1. “Between birth and the late teens or early 20s, individuals form core values molded by teachings and personal experiences, and those core values are by and large kept for life. People who are approximately the same age group and who have been shaped by similar teachings and experiences are considered to be a generation.
  1. American life in the last 100 years has changed frequently and sharply, and life expectancy has increased because of advances in medicine and improved overall wellness. Individuals now live an average of 30 years longer in 2014 than in 1914. The increased life expectancy, coupled with frequent cultural changes, means there are now five living generations in the United States.
  1. The core values held by each generation exert powerful influence over that generation’s core choices, career decisions, lifestyle preferences, and behaviors—including leadership behavior in companies and in the boardroom,” said Underwood, who hosts the PBS national television series “America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood.”

Boards and company management can benefit from learning the core values of the five living American generations and by understanding how to relate to each generation in the marketplace and in the boardroom. The five generations are:

  1. The G.I. Generation, born from 1901 to 1926, is shaped by the experiences of economic prosperity during the roaring 1920s followed by the setbacks of the Great Depression;
  2. The Silent Generation, born from 1927 to 1945, is more financially secure than any other generation that has reached their age;
  3. Baby Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, currently account for 25 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of its wealth;
  4. Generation X, born from 1965 to 1981, is shaped by a materially comfortable childhood that was also emotionally difficult because of divorced and career-driven parents; and
  5. Millennials, born from 1982 to 1996—possibly longer, depending on whether individuals born after 1996 hold to the same core values of Millennials—and living an extended adolescence while also wanting to change the world for the better.

Underwood said that each generation has its own leadership style that is shaped by its unique experiences. He has found there are four general points about generational leadership:

  1. Each generation leads for about two decades.
  2. Each generation’s unique core values determine America’s direction.
  3. Some generations deliver good leadership, some deliver bad.
  4. A generation’s leadership era begins when the oldest are about 65 years old.

The United States is currently undergoing a transition, Underwood said, from one leadership era–that of the Silent Generation—to another: the Baby Boomers.

“Silent Generation white males (minorities and women were allowed the same opportunities) came into an environment in which the corporation was the highest priority, rather than employees. Team players were valued more highly than mavericks,” Underwood said. The value of conformity was stressed to this generation.

They enjoyed lifestyles their G.I. Generation parents never were able to receive because of the Great Depression, and they measured their value based on their material wealth.

The Silent Generation had the expectation that if they conformed and put the company’s needs above their own personal needs, they would be rewarded. Their strong desire for reward, however, led in some cases to corporate corruption.

“This,” Underwood said, “is why eyes are focused on the incoming generation of corporate directors and managers—Baby Boomers, who in their youth helped bring social change through the civil rights’ and women’s rights movements, for example—to help set corporate America back on a solid track.”

1 Comment

  • Wendy DiCicco says:

    Great summary of the session. Was a great view of the dynamics that will come to the C-suite and the board room from the “about to turn 50” Generation Xers.