Generations in the Workplace: A Zero-Sum Game?

I’m dreaming of the day my 61-year-old boss retires. If it were 20 or 30 years ago, my dream would have a good chance of coming true in the next five years or so. These days, however, I think I’ll be waiting a long time. I always laugh to myself, that despite being 21 years his junior, he surely will outlast me.

When I came across an article in The New York Times, “How to Approach the Generation Gap in the Workplace,” I didn’t get further than the title before realizing a key problem no one talks about—that until a larger swath of the Boomers start retiring, those of us in our 30s and 40s are often stuck in place.

Two things have happened over the last 20 years that are making opportunities for advancement not plentiful enough for people my age: The economy has run into deep troubles, resulting in skeleton staffs that remain at skeleton levels even as the economy recovers, and more people who decide to put off retirement. Those two elements equal smaller staffs with fewer positions for advancement, with those upper-level positions that remain often taken by people, who in earlier eras, would have retired already, or at least be thinking of doing so.

With workforces still much slimmer than they were years ago, generational relations can be a zero-sum game, in which young up-and-comers are left with few development opportunities—until someone above them vacates their position. Do you notice this in your organization?

No one wants to push out a senior-level person who has years of experience and wisdom, but, on the other hand, a fresh, frequently more tech- and social media-savvy perspective can be invaluable to a company’s growth. In addition to the different technical skills younger employees may have, another benefit of advancing those in their 30s and 40s into leadership positions is an updated leadership style. Most of us came of age at a time when staffs were so slim that we never had the luxury of “delegating” our responsibilities. That means most of us are not adverse to learning new tasks to get our jobs done, and most of us would naturally gravitate toward what I call “participatory leadership.” That means leadership that chooses to participate in getting the work done, rather than just seeing their role as director and critic.

Not to speak for my whole generation, in addition to the generation younger than me, but I don’t think most of us would presume on a staff of just two or three people that we would be exempt from pitching in with the workload. Many older leaders have learned to take a similar approach, but I think it’s still common among older leaders to feel they can have a job role in which “That’s not my job” is a common reply to requests from their team for help. It’s understandable that some, if not many, of these leaders in their 50s, 60s, or 70s would have that perspective. They came of age in the workforce at a time when staffs were much larger, when it was not unusual for even mid-level employees to have an office and a secretary. So, now that they’re at the pinnacle of their careers, why would they feel the need to be participatory in their approach to leadership?

Part of the solution to make room for advancement opportunities from the mid-ranks to the top is to separate the wheat from the chaff. At my company, there’s one leader who is around the same age as my boss, but who is known as being a great mentor and leader—one who seems to have emotional intelligence and a natural inclination to participate in the workload, and to create a work environment appealing to 30- and 40-somethings. My boss, on the other hand, is a textbook case of a person who has outlasted his usefulness to the modern workforce. A red flag that he is more a part of the chaff than the wheat is that he isn’t open to learning new skills. Your age and generation is not important, as long as you’re willing to learn new skills and use those new skills to help out. For example, we (or I) manage a Website, and he doesn’t even know how to create a hyperlink or add a photo to a page. He spends his days in meetings offering his opinion and criticism. Is that a personality you need in your organization? If you have a mid-sized or large organization, I bet you have at least one leader like this on your payroll.

One idea is for Learning professionals to work with department heads on assessing the skills and potential for growth of all of their employees, regardless of generation. What do you do at your organization to preserve the best of your senior ranks, while encouraging (or facilitating) the less-than-stellar to bow out? Do incentives for some of these individuals to retire make sense for your company?

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