Does Your Company Have Room to Change?

My company is awash in a sea of aging Baby Boomers. I feel terrible saying that because I love the Baby Boomer generation in so many ways. I adore the music of the 1960s and 1970s—it’s by far my favorite actually—and love the fashion of that era even more. Mad Men was one of my favorite shows in recent years.

But, to be honest, I feel hemmed into a lowly position at my company because, unlike previous generations, there is no telling when, if ever, the Boomers will retire. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I’m not a fan of my 61-year-old boss. If this was the ’60s, the ’70s, or maybe even the ’80s or ’90s, I could excitedly imagine that within the next several years he would be off to explore the golf courses of southern Florida. On my way to work this morning, though, I reality-checked myself, and remembered that this is the 21st century, and at that age, he could easily work full time for another 20 years.

A post online on Smart Company, “Three Future Workplace Trends that are Challenging HR as We Know it,” by Sue-Ellen Watts, made me consider that the changes she mentions may not happen as soon as you might think—due, in part, to the unprecedented into-old-age careers we are seeing today. Watts begins with Generational Change as the first of the three big trends that will create a workplace shift. But I’m just not seeing it myself. She writes, and I keep hearing, that Baby Boomers are rapidly leaving the workplace, but I keep seeing them everywhere under the roof where I work, so I don’t really believe it.

At my company, we have a phenomenon that your company also may suffer from. We have a group of veteran Baby Boomer employees, in their 50s and 60s, and even 70s, who have been with the company for more than 20 years. These employees are similar to tenured professors at a university. They’d have to murder someone to get fired. Then, we have a large contingent of poorly paid 20-somethings who do the grunt work that keeps the company going day in and day out. These employees are considered highly expendable and not worth retaining. If the (literally) senior employees are akin to tenured employees, the 20-somethings are similar in stature to fast-food workers, or employees at a retail store in the mall. It’s no big deal if one of them leaves because there’s always another one waiting in line to take the job, and often at an even lower salary than the one who just left. The mentality my company’s top executives seem to have about the company’s army of day-in-day-out 20-something sloggers is similar to what I read in the “Grapes of Wrath.” Steinbeck notes the mentality of the employers of the time that it was never worth paying more, or otherwise meeting worker demands, because there was always another person ready to take the “problem” employee’s place—always someone more desperate for a job, who was willing to do even more work for even less money.

Then, there is my own beleaguered group—the comparatively fractional Generation X, the tiny, cynical generation sandwiched between the elephantine Baby Boomers and Millennials. If the Millennials represent the day-to-day sloggers who make up the engine of the company, Generation X comprises the mid-level employees who are stuck right where they are because there is no room at the top. We’ve advanced past the lowest ranks of the company, but beyond that, there appears to be no path. Earlier generations didn’t experience this, and the Millennials certainly won’t due its much greater size than Generation X. But for my generation, there’s no place to move, until the Baby Boomers pick up the pace and start moving along. It pains me to say it, because I know it isn’t nice to say, but it seems to be the truth.

At my company, in fact, there is no succession planning that involves people at the mid-level. One of my ideas is to offer financial incentives for more Baby Boomers to retire faster. One way to do it is to offer entry into a program in which retired Baby Boomers can continue to reap half of their salary for five years after they retire if they agree to serve as a mentor, or guide, to someone at the mid-level. They would train and guide an up-and-coming employee into the slot they left for five years, enabling knowledge capture and continuity. I bet many cash-strapped Baby Boomers longing to retire would jump at that opportunity. To offset the financial strain of continuing to pay retired employees half their salary for five years, an agreement could be worked out with high-potential mid-level employees eager to move up the ranks. Their salary would be incrementally increased to the level of their new position, rather than having their salary immediately jump to the full level of the new position. Do you think that might work at your company? Are you doing anything comparable?

The other two workplace trends Watts notes are Reducing Office Space and Social Media in the Workplace. But that isn’t going to happen for a while. The protected class of senior-level employees are not easily going to give up their offices, and I can’t see them being comfortable with no assigned workspace, with just a laptop they wander around with every day looking for a cozy nook to work in. And while many of these employees understand social media enough to post photos of their grandchildren or vacations, most are nowhere as savvy about using social media to market as 20-somethings.

How is your company preparing for the future? How are you balancing the desire of your most senior employees to stay in the workforce longer than any previous generation with the needs of your promising (and highly valuable) entry- and mid-level employees?

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