Nobody puts baby (boomers) in a corner, or keeps them out of the executive suite—but Generation X is giving them a run for their money. The current brat pack of Fortune 500 CEOs is now made up mostly of people aged 43 to 58, also known as the “sandwich generation.” Back in the 1990s, they were called the slacker generation: That’s right, Gen X. To paraphrase a generation-defining movie for this cohort, reality no longer bites for the leaders of the country’s biggest firms.
Known for their early efforts to establish a better work-life balance, Gen X might finally be shaking things up from the very top. There are currently 267 Fortune 500 CEOs who could have been held in detention as the Breakfast Club. It’s not all that shocking, given that the average age of a Fortune 500 CEO sits solidly in this range: aged 57.7. They have a lot in common with Gen X icon Keanu Reeves, who is just a tad older at age 58. Sorting through all 505 CEOs from this year’s list, Fortune cross-referenced their ages with the generational definitions used by both S&P Global and Pew Research Center. As Keanu might say, once or twice, or ten times, “Whoa.”
Gen X has many defining pop culture totems, but few sum up its ambivalence about ambition and careerism like Ben Stiller’s 1994 film Reality Bites, starring the generation’s favorite heroine, Winona Ryder (also a close friend of Keanu Reeves offscreen). She must choose between two romantic options, the besuited, status-hungry Michael, played by Stiller himself, and the goateed, aloof Troy, played by then-slacker heartthrob Ethan Hawke.
A Troy soliloquy argues “there’s no point to any of this,” extolling the simple pleasures of a quarter-pounder with cheese, because “it’s all just a … a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes.”
But things have changed a few decades on.
From Keanu and Winona to Elon and Satya
The oft-overlooked Generation X—neither as self-mythologizing as the boomers or as economically anxious as the millennials—has been making news a lot lately, as many have reached the height of their power. Whether you love them, hate them, or don’t know their names, Gen X leaders include essentially every prominent business leader outside of millennial Mark Zuckerberg. Some of the persistently vocal, like Elon Musk, have made their attempt at a leadership style while slashing jobs and ushering employees back into the office. Other famed Gen X leaders, like Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, are sharing their takes on A.I. and hybrid work. Nadella recently was voted the “most underrated” CEO for the six time in a row by Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies, and it seems as if Gen X is finally getting properly rated after all.
Boomers are not far behind Gen X, standing at 226 CEOs aged 59 to 77. This cohort is also more likely to be billionaires than younger generations, as the Wealth-X Database found that the median age of such high-net individuals was 67. Given their greater time to establish themselves in their careers and less obstacles to building wealth, such as stagnant salaries, greater student debt and more vulnerability to recessions that plagued younger cohorts, Boomers have had a leg up for some time.
Meanwhile, our youngest Fortune 500 CEO, the aforementioned Zuckerberg, is currently employing his company to wage the battle of denying that he was ever knocked out in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament. Playing dead is a classic move that every dog on the top of their game employees, but Mark Zuckerberg denies he was unconscious at all, claiming that the referee misheard his snores. At 38, he’s one of the 1% of millennials that represent Fortune 500’s spriest chickens. There are only seven CEOs in the list that can be considered millennials. This generation is still establishing itself, having been held back by the Great Recession and the cost of education. Besides, Zuckerberg and other young CEOs are like most people that still use Facebook, older millennials that are practically Gen X.
Also only representing 1% of the Fortune 500 list are CEOs from the postwar, or silent generation. Older than boomers, these executives are aged 78 to 95. There are just five CEOs of this cohort, including Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett.
Still early in their career, there’s no Gen Z Fortune 500 CEOs yet. Which makes sense given that the cohort is born between the years of 1997 to 2012, and despite Republican efforts to chip away at child labor laws, a lot of this highly educated group that's between the ages 11 and 26 is still in school or just establishing themselves in the workforce. For now it’s the dawning of the age of Gen X.
As for Winona, in Reality Bites, of course she chooses the slacker Troy instead of the ambitious Michael, but as the Fortune 500 list will tell you, the latter probably ended up as a CEO somewhere.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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