By Leslie Rothman
The era of the disposable employee is coming to a close. The mindset that has surrounded the workplace since baby boomers aplenty entered it in the 60’s and beyond has been “we can find ready, willing, and capable employees if the ones we have don’t work out.” This attitude mirrors our broader societal context of a world at our disposal, with vast resources available for our use. In Human Resources we’ve worked hard to influence this mindset – represented by our changing terminology from Personnel to Human Resources. By referencing employees as “valuable assets,” “associates,” and now “talent” we have championed the innate value of employees with varying degrees of success.
We now have both the opportunity and the necessity to lead a shift in thinking which is as far reaching and fundamental as moving the workplace from the industrial era to the information age. What’s driving this need to shift our thinking? The answer is demographics, in two distinct ways. The number of people departing and entering the workplace as well as the changing mix of generations in the workplace as this ebb and flow occurs.
The number of people departing and entering the workplace
This is a simple result of our changing demographics. It significantly alters the supply and demand curves for employees. “The U.S. birthrate continues to decline. By 2025, 1 in 5 workers will be over age 55. The slowing of the workforce translates to an estimated shortfall of 20 million workers over the next 20 years.”
- “With retiring baby boomers and a 5.7% decrease in 25-39 year olds by 2010, there will be a shortfall of 7.4 million bachelor degree holders in the workforce by 2012″¹
- The current recession will slow the exodus of retirement eligible baby boomers.²
However, as employees, this group will seek different organizational roles, many looking for an opportunity to “downshift” their careers, schedules, and work commitments; and eventually they will depart the workforce.
The changing mix of generations in the workplace
The baby boom generation currently makes up the largest percentage of U.S. political, cultural, industrial, and academic leadership. As the reigning leadership group, it will be critical for baby boomers to really understand and accept the very different values and needs of the generations behind them that are becoming a more critical part of the workforce.
Generational Values and Norms
Compare these generational values and norms regarding the workplace:
TRADITIONALS (Born prior to 1946)
Respect for time in a position
Adhere to rules and are loyal to organizations
Value education and sacrifice
Conform to, and respect authority
BABY BOOMERS (1946 -1964)
Focus on values – optimistic about contributions they can make
Team-oriented and expect to have a voice at the table
Value loyalty and “paid their dues”
“Give 110%” -self sacrificing and driven
GEN X ERS (1965 -1980)
Present fresh perspectives, are individualistic
Not intimidated by status, power, authority
Value a fun and stimulating work environment
Focus on family first -between work and home
GEN Y’S (1981-1999)
Value diversity and no gender role bias
Seek out social aspects of the workplace
Present confidence and optimism
Desire clear goals and on-going feedback
When these differing values and motivators mix and mingle in the workplace, there is plenty of opportunity for misunderstandings and un-met needs.
A clear difference with the earlier generations of Traditionals and Baby Boomers and the Gen Xers and Ys is that these newcomers to the workforce are less likely to stick around if work doesn’t provide plenty of ongoing stimulation, fun and learning, and reward them for what they bring to the workplace. They will demand ongoing opportunities for growth, building competence, and continual challenge. Motivating, rewarding, and coaching employees will take prominence in retaining them.
What does this Paradigm Shift mean for us? The “easy come and easy go” mindset must change, or organizations will not be successful. Both the ability to hire and retain will be impacted if an organization can’t make this shift.
An organization’s growth will be limited as well its productivity. You may think, “I’ve heard this already. We have some new programs in place.” However to really change this mindset requires a paradigm shift. The context surrounding how we operate as organizations and leaders must be altered. Good employees will become increasingly harder to find and much quicker to leave. We must treat them with respect and care.
This shift parallels the way we have started to view our larger world and the planet’s resources.The increasingly familiar slogan of reuse, recycle, renew can be applied to our workforce. How about?:
Refresh, Retrain, Renew
If we refresh, retrain, and renew organizations remain strong, vibrant and sustainable.
How can we accomplish this?
This shift in mindset impacts all aspects of HR work. We will need to:
- Develop policies that match the mantra, like flexible benefits and work schedules, time off, and career and family sabbaticals.
- Fund solid financial investment that supports career stewardship, personal and professional development.
Most importantly, develop tangible incentives for the behaviors and attitudes we want to promote.
Leadership: Critical Area of Focus
Retraining leadership at all levels so they recognize and acknowledge this necessary shift and then adapt new behaviors is the most critical area of focus.
The role of the manager will now require the ability to teach, stimulate, communicate in new ways, and actively promote the growth and support the flexibility of each individual. The long held attitude of “we had to pay our dues, work our way up, put in long hours, sacrifice and stay loyal so they should too” goes the way of the dinosaurs.
Not unlike global warming, the first challenge is to get widespread acknowledgement of the impending landscape. The next step is to create a new vision for our workplaces, then develop policies and programs, shape and model new practices and behaviors, and provide explicit individual and organizational rewards to change the behaviors of past decades.
It takes time, and we have some.
Let’s use it wisely.
An Ending Era was reprinted with permission from the Spring H.R. Convention, 2009 and is a copyright publication of Career & Workplace Directions, LLC and cannot be copied without the express written permission of Career & Workplace Directions, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Leslie Rothman, Career & Workplace Directions.
¹K. Tyler (2002). Neckties to noserings: Earning the trust of a multigenerational workforce. From: www.businessleader.com/bl/aug02/necktiestonoserings.html
²Data from the report, “The Convergence of the Aging Workforce and Accessible Technology: The implications for commerce, business, and policy.” 2007 and the Employment Policy Foundation