Achieve economic sustainability from a workforce in transition

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By Phyllis Weiss Haserot
This is the sixth in a series of regular columns by generational expert and internationally known consultant, coach, writer, and speaker Phyllis Weiss Haserot on intergenerational relations and navigating the challenges of the multi-generational workplace for better productivity, retention, succession planning, and business development results.

Given both the demographic realities of a huge Baby Boomer workforce and a severe economic downtown that almost everyone was unprepared for, the viability of long accepted retirement and transitioning policies and practices are rightfully being questioned.

From a human perspective we are dealing with multi-generational challenges and inter-generational tensions that are mostly different and greater than ever before in the workplace. They affect the older workforce in many ways, including:

Generational DefinitionsHere are some quick definitions. Generations are defined by the similar formative influences – social, cultural, political, economic – that existed as the individuals of particular birth cohorts were growing up. Given that premise, the age breakdowns for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are approximately:

Traditionalists born 1925-1942
Baby Boomers born 1943-1962
Generation X born 1963-1978
Generation Y/Millennials born 1979-1998 (under age 30 today)

  • Older workers may be reporting to managers of a younger generation, which can be uncomfortable, not only because of status and ego, but also because of differing communication styles and media, perceived work ethic, facility with technology, different attitudes toward teamwork, and more.
  • Generation X and Y/Millennials often hold misperceptions and stereotypes about the Boomers and their work ethic and life objectives, and vice versa. They may feel their values differ. They may feel the older generations are technology Luddites and workaholics and talk too much, for example.
  • There is a cultural chasm: the Boomers are often resented because of their higher pay and clout by the younger generations who don't respect authority predicated on a person's just being around a long time. Gen X and Y don't believe they should have to pay their dues. Younger workers are super-eager to take the reins, control the client base, and make decisions their way.
  • And then there is what I have coined "The Baby Boomer Flexibility Paradox", that is, the Boomers want flexibility as much as younger people but most managers have no models they feel confident will enable them to maintain expected productivity standards for their work teams. Consequently they appear reluctant to change.

Briefly, what are some solutions?

  • Organizations should offer flexibility in not only hours and locations, but also staffing and talent development – based on business plans and coordination with work teams of all ages and levels of workers. There is a solid business case for this. Turnover is very expensive. Retention of most desirable talent will increase substantially with flexibility - as long as there is no stigma. And stigma is greatly reduced when flexibility is offered to everyone who can make a business case for it. In poor economic times, it makes even more financial sense for employers.
  • Second, facilitate dialogue within multi-generational work teams – which is where understanding and change happens. We need to go beyond presentations for awareness and resolve concrete issues where they live – in teams that work together. In my experience facilitating these dialogues",ah ha" moments and transformations occur.For situations where older workers are reporting to younger managers, institute mutual mentoring and mentoring circles; capitalize on age diversity (expertise, judgment, relationships, creativity, differing views of the world); enforce a culture of respect.Institute a knowledge transfer and succession planning process for all critical positions at all levels. While there is widespread lip service to this as a high priority, it has not been backed up with much action. Here are some further thoughts on this urgent need.


Working with professional service firms and knowledge workers for over 20 years, I observed for many years the increasingly 24/7 work pressures to succeed and the vocally expressed - as never before - desire of Generations X and Y/Millennials for work-life flexibility. I realized that the younger people would not get what they wanted in the workplace unless there was something in it for the senior people, who had put in a lot of hours for a lot of years. Putting myself in the management and seasoned workers' heads and shoes, I started looking at their career future and saw that they were not planning their eventual transitions to a subsequent career life destination or devoting adequate attention to succession planning and knowledge transfer. The two main reasons were: time pressures to get their current work done and develop business; and denial of the need for eventual change.

But firms are in danger of losing valuable clients and knowledge without succession planning and a smooth transitioning process. They also risk losing potential next generation leaders if they are not brought into the succession process early. The AICPA has been working to call attention to this need for planning and harmonious transitioning, but approximately two-thirds of firms don't have plans in place and more are not executing the plans effectively.

Especially in today's economic environment with little expectation of returning to "normal" anytime soon, succession planning along with capitalizing on the expertise, judgment, relationships, and interpersonal skills of seasoned workers is no frill. It is a necessity!

We can't redo what is. Join me in making lemonade.


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2009. All rights reserved.
Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm she founded over 20 years ago. A special focus is on the profitability of improving inter-generational relations and transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners. Haserot is the author of "The Rainmaking Machine" and "The Marketer's Handbook of Tips & Checklists" (both Thomson/West 2008).

See all of the articles in this series.

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