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Gen X Marks Its Spot

Gen X Marks Its Spot

Call them slackers at your peril. Chances are good that somewhere in your company there's a generation X employee who wants your job . . .

It was only a few years ago that many baby boomer IT executives were planning to retire early. The late 90s were heady days, and there was much talk of cashing in stock options and escaping the rat race while still young enough to enjoy life - maybe travel, maybe write a book or maybe do some fishing.

Not any more.

The baby boomer's dreams of early retirement crashed in 2000, along with the dotcom market and nearly everything else to do with the information economy. The "long boom" that was heralded on the cover of Wired magazine's July 1997 issue turned out to be not so long after all. These days, baby boomer CIOs hardly ever talk about retiring early. They're too busy hanging onto the jobs they've got with both hands.

In March CIO Beverley Head asked the question: "What baby boomer is ever going to admit that they are too old to do anything?" (see "Talking About My Generation", CIO March 2004). Exactly the problem say the CIOs of tomorrow, better known as the generation X middle managers of today. With the baby boomers firmly entrenched in their roles and seemingly unwilling to budge, aspiring CIOs from generation X - the eldest of whom turn 43 this year - are feeling left out in the cold. And if the current generation of CIOs has begun to hunt around for successors, no one's bothered to tell gen X anything about it.

"Less than 10 percent of CIOs move up the executive ladder to the next level; for most of these people this job is their retirement plan," says Jim Kotoulas, manager of IT infrastructure engineering services at the Australian Gas Light Company (AGL), and a self-declared CIO aspirant. "They're not moving on to COO, CEO, CFO or any of the other positions at the board level. This is the endgame for them, and they're not simply going to hand it over. There's nowhere else for them to go."

A 34 year-old IT worker who's worked at banks, telcos and dotcom start-ups since first entering the workforce in the early 1990s, Kotoulas is speaking as one of the nearly four and a half million people born between 1961 and 1981 who currently make up the largest chunk of Australia's workforce - and aptly feel that their career options have been stymied by their elders' apparent monopoly on C-level positions. "You're ready to have children, a mortgage and all sorts of other responsibilities. You might have even managed 100 people, but you're in your 30s and looking at dead ends," he says.

Kotoulas, who has himself managed teams of over 100 people over the course of his career, knows the feeling of frustration only too well, especially when you consider that - as he is fond of pointing out - CIO's very own "2004 State of the CIO" survey reports that the average Australian CIO manages only 87 people. "You may have managed an enormous engineering team or an application team, but you're still not ready to be CIO," he says. "It's like arguing with your father."

Kotoulas pauses for a moment before choosing his next words, perhaps mindful of that fact that he still has several years of working under boomer bosses ahead of him. "Every generation says the next generation is never ready and, in a way, they're correct," he says. "There won't be a changing of the guard. It has to be seized."

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