Planning for the Rising … and Retiring Generations in Your Workplace
Kids these days ...” Have you ever caught yourself muttering this phrase when a younger generation does something you’d supposedly never do? It may be followed by the ever popular, “When I was their age …” If so, you’re not alone. As far back as Socrates, older generations have been perplexed by their younger counterparts. Wired to change the status quo, younger people are eager to evolve society forward, while older generations prefer the safety of keeping the establishment running smoothly. For instance, in their youth, baby boomers fought for civil rights, while millennials at the same age are now fighting to save the planet from climate change.
Each generation has a unique worldview shaped by their experience of major societal events and parental upbringing. Yet, in our attempt to make sense of a certain cohort, we may inadvertently stereotype people by attributing one characteristic to an entire generation. It’s much more helpful to archetype — i.e., view a collective pattern of behavior — so that we can better understand what may be influencing their values. This can help us manage workplace conflicts by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to hopefully judge them less.
Let’s take a stroll through the four generations that comprise our current workforce.
The traditionalists (born 1915-1945), often known as the “Greatest Generation,” experienced the Depression and World War II, which shaped their values around frugality, patriotism, work ethic and conformity. They organized the workplace into a military-style hierarchy, which also fueled their “command and control” management style.
Boasting 80 million, baby boomers (born 1946-1964) were the media darlings after World War II. With high societal expectations, they were the first largely college-educated generation, with women entering the workforce en masse. They were also shaped by the social turbulence of the Vietnam War and civil rights, coining a popular anti-establishment phrase, “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 30.”
Ironically, their workforce years reared them to conform to the hierarchical standards of their traditionalist bosses. They perfected the art of “face time” (not the iPhone app!) — showing up before the boss and leaving after the boss. Work ethic was defined mostly by hours in the office, which may be why many boomers today struggle with the idea of their employees working remotely.
Today, boomers face the looming question of retirement. Expected to live well into their 90s, they may outlive their retirement funds. And with a perpetual desire to be productive, many are reluctant to give up the reigns of leadership.
As the children of the older boomers, Generation X (born 1965-1980) were raised in their parents’ shadows. At only 46 million, they are dwarfed by the previous generation and have often felt overlooked. They weren’t courted by the media and their working parents often left them alone after school as “latchkey kids.” Their resulting independent spirit should come as no surprise. Add to that a general cynicism due to breakdowns in government, business and their parents’ marriages, and it’s understandable why they often clash with boomers and millennials who feel more embraced by society and adopted a more optimistic outlook.
And yet, Gen X has certainly made their mark, kicking off the technology sector full force in the 1990s and founding such icons as Google and Amazon. Paradoxically, they now are falling behind on social media trends since people over the age of 35 tend to be late adopters to new technologies.
Today in their late 30s to early 50s, they are conflicted about advancing to leadership at the sacrifice of work-life balance. While some long for boomers to retire, others prefer to forgo the stress and remain individual contributors. It poses a significant succession planning problem, especially for small companies.
At 100 million strong, the millennials (born 1981-2000) are the children of the second-half of the boomers. Profoundly shaped by “helicopter” parenting (extreme hovering), they were overscheduled, highly praised and championed by their parents, teachers and coaches. Lest we harshly judge this parenting style, it is important to remember that their protectiveness was born during an era of extreme social disturbance.
Post-9/11 and global terrorism taught millennials that the world is a dangerous place. It motivated them to pursue social activist causes and even pursue mission- driven careers. Climate change, food shortages and human trafficking are some of the global issues this generation wants to impact. Their moniker “Next Greatest Generation” is well-deserved.
On the work front, their high expectations around career advancement and work-life balance may not be any different than previous generations, but certainly more expressed. Wanting to integrate — not just balance — life with work, they prefer to avoid “clocking in and out”; instead, they work flexible hours so long as they deliver their work product. And with mobile technology embedded into their communication, why can’t they text their boss if they’re running late?
Their “question everything” style has earned them another name: Generation Why (a play on Generation Y). Encouraged by their parents — and Google — to be inquisitive, this generation wants to know what makes the world, including their employers, tick. For example, how does this menial task support the larger business goals? When kept in the loop, their engagement soars because they feel like they’re making an impact. It’s that mission-driven spirit rising up again.
Unfortunately, millennials are often criticized for being “entitled” or “lazy.” In reality, this is a highly engaged generation with more opportunities to change the world than previous generations through technological advancements. Maybe this generation is finally able to realize aspirations their predecessors could only dream about. And as leaders, maybe it’s our job to help them (and their younger siblings — Generation Z) do just that.
Succession Planning in Specialty Graphics
Every industry faces its own set of succession planning challenges, and specialty graphics — a segment of the larger manufacturing sector — is not immune. Predominant among these trends is a widening skills gap of aging workers who are often reluctant to embrace technological changes. Couple this with a 2-million-worker shortage of next generation labor, partially resulting from parents discouraging their children from pursuing manufacturing careers. (The Manufacturing Institute is doing an excellent job of addressing this challenge.) Finally, there is the complex dichotomy of boomer leaders who can retire (and are now doing so in droves) contrasted with those who can’t afford or don’t want to. And of course, there are the Gen X successors who can’t decide if they want to step up or move on. Some companies are forced to tap inexperienced millennials to fill the void.
Here are some tips to succession plan each generation of your workforce:
- Respect your boomers for their years of service and appreciate their internal conflict about when to retire. Whether they have worked for your company for two years or 20, they are likely facing fears around their health, finances, and even personal identity. Let’s face it: when the “honey-do” list is completed three months after they retire, they may actually yearn for the daily grind they so happily left. Be sensitive when approaching the topic of retirement and consider a phased retirement option where they can still work a modified schedule and transfer institutional knowledge to the next generation through mentorship. And if they do retire, make room for them to return part-time, if they wish.
- Don’t presume that your Gen X successors will actually want your job. This cohort is greatly conflicted about whether they should step into an executive role or forgo it for work-life balance. Money aside, sometimes their family needs to take precedence. And just because they once broached the idea of being groomed, this doesn’t mean things haven’t changed. If they still have children at home, they may delay the process. It’s wise to have periodic career conversations to assess their motivators and offer to help them either move up or grow within their current level, at least for the time being.
Get creative in helping your millennials find their career path. With an average job tenure of only 18 months, it’s important to identify what really motivates your 20- and 30-somethings to advance within your company. Maybe your digital press operator wants to become a graphic designer, or your customer service representative aspires to sales. Skills and career aspirations change over time, so check in with them regularly to see how they may want to develop skills that could be repurposed in a different aspect of your business. The more they sense your true desire to help them grow, the more their level of engagement will grow.
- Show young professionals that specialty graphics is a career worth pursuing. Early career professionals often “fall into” their job path without knowing their options. Make an effort to connect with local colleges, art schools and job fairs about the exciting aspects of the industry. After all, specialty graphics blends both art and technology, an exciting combination for many young adults. And yes, be prepared to talk with the parents of your recruits to show them how their child’s career path can flourish within this dynamic sector.
As you navigate your multigenerational workforce, it’s important to understand both the factors that shaped their worldviews and how their stage of life impacts their career aspirations. As you listen and learn, you may one day find yourself saying “Kids these days ... ” and smiling.
Shira Harrington, Chief Engagement Officer of Purposeful Hire, Inc., has a passion for fostering generational harmony in the workplace. A Gen Xer, she considers herself a bridge between boomers and millennials, helping all three generations better understand the values and differences each brings to the table. A keynote speaker, recruiter and career coach, Shira is committed to the mission of her company, “For every hire, there is a higher purpose.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-508-9573.