Something dramatic is happening to America’s workforce. Nearly 52 percent of the 1.9 million federal workers, for example, are eligible for retirement. They’ve been middle managers for almost their whole career. And like the inexorable movement of tectonic plates, they’re being replaced by younger workers. This is nothing new.
What makes it different, as it is with every generation that finds itself under the heel of change, is that it is happening to those born between 1945 and 1960; that group conceived by troops returning to their spouses after World War II, i.e., “baby boomers.”
They are being replaced by their grandchildren. At first glance, that doesn’t seem to be so bad. But this isn’t Plato’s “Utopia” – a village didn’t raise these kids. These 51 million people born between 1961 and 1981 grew up hearing stories of parental loyalty to the boss, and then watched as the models their parents copied from their parents, the “Ozzie and Harriet” generation, split under the pressures of divorce, layoffs and double income demands through the 1990s. Many of them became “latchkey kids” under a ballooning consumer debt. Today, many of those children-turned-adults see their folks struggling to let go of dreams of an easy retirement while painfully deciding whether to keep working or live on much, much less.
Who are you?
So, they see institutions as treacherous. And that’s why, as this wave of workers between their mid-20s and late 30s negotiates work, they see its rules and its demands for loyalty as non-starters; an attitude that makes them unfathomable to the bosses of their parents’ generation. Unfathomable to the point of being labeled “X,” which as any scientist will tell you, is the symbol assigned to something unnamed and unknown.
In Kentucky, business leaders have seen this coming, prompting two of the state’s most influential organizations to partner to avert what they say will be a critical shortage of skilled Kentuckians. The Kentucky Association of Manufacturers (KAM) and the Kentucky School Boards Association (KSBA) are collaborating to increase the number of qualified students for well-paying engineering or advanced manufacturing careers.
“Thousands of baby boomers will soon be retiring from Kentucky’s advanced manufacturing industry and we need to make sure Kentucky students are ready to replace them,” said KSBA Executive Director Bill Scott.
“Manufacturing is Kentucky’s No. 1 industry, producing $27 billion – 20 percent of our state gross product – and employing 260,000 well-paid workers,” said Jim LeMaster, president of KAM. “If manufacturers can’t find qualified workers when the baby boomers begin to retire, they will begin to leave Kentucky, which will dramatically affect our economy and future prosperity.”
Generation Xers aren’t social misfits. They realize, as their parents did, that competition is tough, and a finely honed job skill is a necessity. But unlike their parents, they want fulfilling work. They won’t devote their whole career to one company. Nor are they necessarily willing to work overtime, holidays or weekends for the sake of it. A smattering of management texts in the last few years have picked up on this theme and turned it into an indictment: Businesses that need to run past 5 o’clock may not be run that well.
Business, on the other hand, is struggling with the idea of handing itself off to Gen Xers. Although the milk of business is innovation, some companies are still working off business models from the last century. Bosses settled in comfy bureaucracies and dated procedures are in the crosshairs of younger workers who want to shake the institution up a little. And if they are not given the chance to do it, they’ll fold their tent and be gone before the next timesheet, talent and all. The challenge for boomers is to set aside their misgivings for the sake of the company and adapt as they teach adaptation; a fine line to walk.
Take my hand
Boomers must pass along what they know. But for some of them, dealing with Xers is like trying to relate to someone from another planet. Fortunately, it’s not impossible. Many new gurus of the Xer mindsets agree that one of the best techniques to transfer knowledge is mentoring – which just happens to be one of the oldest techniques. In fact, one of the eight points outlined by the KAM and the KSBA in their plan to deal with Kentucky’s shrinking workforce is the use of mentoring.
A mentor is someone who guides your career. They may be a boss or a friend, but they are usually older and more worldly in most things work related. They don’t necessarily have to be in your field, either. What they offer is an understanding of office politics, or particular knowledge of a specific industry, or a wealth of priceless institutional memory. But the most important thing they offer is experience tempered with kindness and patience.
Sometimes, in some places, a mentor is assigned. A recent Wall Street Journal article found that the number of formal and informal mentoring programs has quadrupled since 1988. But research has shown that institutionalized mentoring doesn’t seem to work very well.
The article cited a U.S. Army study that found most junior officers complaining of a lack of mentors. It suggested that many baby boomers serving as senior officers don’t see mentoring as a responsibility. And a study by Minneapolis-based Menttium Corp. found that about 90 percent of formal mentoring programs eventually disband because of bad matching and poor follow-up. So, if institutionalizing the ancient art of preparing an apprentice for the path to mastery doesn’t work, what does?
Every field is full of long-timers with lots of “paying your dues” stories. But for Gen Xers, these stories are like the old joke about how you can’t get credit if you don’t have any. Many complain that the only way to get a chance to prove what they know is for someone to retire or die. Meanwhile, long-timers say that a kid spouting off with big ideas and no understanding of what has happened before only embarrasses everybody.
And this is where today’s intergenerational dilemma isn’t much different from any other. In the end, it all comes down to trust and capability. A supervisor’s evaluation continues beyond the interview and the hiring. They should always be looking for opportunities to show the rest of the organization that they made a good choice in bringing this person onboard, and they do that by deciding when their charge is ready for new challenges.
The Xer should know this, and believe that their supervisor is looking for ways to bring them into the larger mix. They should follow their boss’ lead but not hesitate to share an idea or a new way of doing something. And this bespeaks a larger need for good communication based on at least decent chemistry.
One thing a manager should keep in mind when mentoring Gen Xers is that they are highly competent in today’s technologies. That means they aren’t afraid to apply them in the real world and in real time. And they should understand that Xer confidence and independence may sometimes look like arrogance, but it isn’t.
Because oddly and at the same time, Gen Xers need feedback and lots of it. A 2005 survey conducted by the Institute for Public Policy polled federal workers on the 10 aspects that made a job satisfying or not, and for younger ones, supervisor feedback ranked near the top. They want guidance, not only in their work but their career. And not feeling part of the team is a why Gen Xers are willing to move not only up but out – looking for opportunities elsewhere, making them much more adventurous than boomers. Being integrated into the movement and success of the company, any company, is important to them.
Gen Xers want to know what is expected of them and then be freed to figure out how to achieve it. So, a manager/mentor should give them guidance but not necessarily full instructions. And they should realize that Gen Xers won’t turn to them for information they can get elsewhere, but instead seek role models, someone who will push them, someone who believes in them and someone who cares.
The world keeps a-turning
Generation Xers aren’t the only ones coming down the pike. Demographers and actuaries have also identified new waves of workers. “Generation Next” or the “Millennials,” 75-million strong and born between 1977 and 2000, are heading into their first real jobs as we speak. Meanwhile, “The New Silent Generation” began around 2001 and is still being born.
But the foundation for the United States that will exist between now and 2050 rests firmly in the backpacks and iPods of Generation X. And although they may seem alien, they are ours and we must prepare them. Ann Fishman, a consultant specializing in intergenerational marketing told The College Journal, “Mentoring will improve if boomers recognize that younger people will be taking their jobs — that’s the natural order.“ Remember when Jane Pauley left the “Today” show in 1989 and gave her alarm clock to her protégé, Debra Norville, on network TV? It’s like that.