Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Gen X as Transitional

Those of us who went through grad school in the 90's probably remember when “post-” was the prefix of choice. (For younger readers, it was similar to the use of “e-” ten years ago or “i-” now.) It started with “postmodernism,” but quickly grew to become a cultural habit. “Posties” were those who couldn't stop proclaiming the “death of...” whatever. The cultural mood at the time was that we were at the end of something, but the next thing hadn't arrived yet. We were late to the party, but didn't really have one of our own.

In thinking through some reader feedback on the notes about Gen X in higher ed last week, I saw the same thing. The public academy in its classic Boomer-era form is crumbling, but its successor isn't entirely clear yet. We X'ers are getting here just as things are winding down.

That puts us in an odd position, which isn't unusual. The cohort born from, say, the mid-60's to about 1980 is smaller than the cohorts on either side of it, which is why we tend to get overshadowed culturally. This was the group that ‘pirated’ music on cassettes; it wasn’t until the next cohort came along that the entire music industry model was destroyed. This was the group that entered grad school being told of a forthcoming great wave of retirements that required our presence, only to find ourselves freeway flying. (And yes, dear readers, I did time as a freeway flyer myself, in a hatchback without air conditioning.)

Being the transitional group can kind of suck. You fight like hell to board a sinking ship.

Now I’m seeing a frustrating number of talented, intelligent, well-respected Gen X types on campus walk away from leadership roles for family reasons.

I can’t blame any of them. At this point, many of the institutional constraints on leadership roles are so thorough, and so encrusted with history, that any thinking person would chafe under them. On the personal side, a generation raised mostly by divorced parents can be forgiven for not wanting to pass on that particular tradition. Given the option of generating family tension for not very much money and a whole lot of stress, there’s something to be said for walking away. But I’m concerned about the vacuum they leave behind.

I see an increasingly desperate swirl of the same cohort hanging on, with nobody stepping up to replace them. The transition that needs to happen isn’t happening.

I recall many years ago hearing some big muckety-muck proclaim that “rotation of elites” was a sign of institutional health. Presumably, a lack of rotation would indicate the opposite. If that’s true, then I’m seeing some pretty severe signs of ill health. Smart people with options are opting out of a system that doesn’t meet their needs. The generation whose needs it met is still largely here, but on the way out.

The tragedy of it is that given the chance, the X’ers could be damn good at running institutions. They’re (we’re) notoriously pragmatic, and far less likely to get caught up in the futile chase for Next Big Things. I see a lot less moralizing in this cohort than in the boomers, which strikes me as a general improvement. In the best case, the X’ers could change colleges to fit the realities of people’s lives as they’re lived now. That would be a real contribution, worthy of celebration.

But then, I recall forecasts that the influx of women into corporations would make corporations more humane and aware of work/life balance. How did that work out?

My free advice to colleges that hope to survive over the long term: bring in the X’ers, and bring them in now. Reform while it’s still a matter of choice. By the time it’s not optional, it will be too late. Disruptive changes are remarkably unforgiving; you can bend now, or break later. This group offers your last, best chance to bend.