Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why We Chose the Hourglass

Generation X is sometimes called the hourglass generation. Sandwiched between two much larger generations—the Baby Boomers and the Millennials—any population graph that includes all three generations invariably resembles an hourglass. Generation X forms the pinched waist in the middle.

So the shape of the hourglass is clearly relevant to our discussion about the impact of generational change on leadership in associations. But so, too, is the function of the hourglass. It measures time, and time is very relevant to our discussion. Its passing is one of the inexorable factors that is creating the change we're discussing and, like the sand in the hourglass, that time will eventually run out. And when it does, one leadership opportunity currently available to the hourglass generation will be forever lost.

Let me explain. I've read some articles about an impending leadership gap that will occur—sooner or later depending on the prevailing economic winds—when the Boomers who lead the majority of associations retire or otherwise move on. These articles have typically noted that since Generation X is so much smaller than the Baby Boom generation, a number of GenX association professionals may be poised for significant career advancement as associations go hunting for new leadership among a smaller pool of talent.

But a subject these articles invariably leave unexplored is what will happen when these Xers start bringing a new generational perspective to their new leadership positions—a perspective that is substantially different from the generational perspective that preceded it, especially with regard to organizational concepts as vision, loyalty, and work/life balance.

One question I would like to explore is whether or not this shift in generational perspective represents an opportunity to change the role and core functions of the associations that serve our society. Given the dramatic differences between the generations in question, it seems to me that the potential for change is equally dramatic—but only if Generation X recognizes the opportunity for what it is and does something that is particularly uncharacteristic for it.

To affect significant change, not just in their individual associations but in society at large, Generation X association leaders will have to come together to decide on their areas of common purpose, and then work collaboratively with one another to see that they are achieved.

And this brings me back to the hourglass. Generation X is pinched between two much larger and much more similar generations. If it squanders this leadership opportunity and allows the sand in the hourglass to run out, the generation that follows will simply turn the timepiece over, and Generation X will find itself once again in the middle. This time the Millennials will be above in the positions of leadership and the Boomers will be below as the great multitude to whom society is oriented.

It is not my intention to portray this potential future as a negative one. Given the generational and demographic forces at work, some might even call that future inevitable. But I am interested in starting a dialogue with GenX association professionals to see if they are willing to accept the leadership challenge that is confronting them and, if so, to explore the boundaries of change that our purposeful and collective action could bring about. The pinched middle of the hourglass is not necessarily a bad place to be, especially if we remember that it is the fulcrum on which the whole mechanism turns.


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