If ever there was a generation-defining ‘accident of history’, the Covid-19 pandemic is it. Compared to other recent accidents of history—the 2008 recession, 9/11, ongoing war—Covid-19 has directly impacted far more people, of all ages, on a global scale. Quite literally, everyone is going through this together.
We are currently experiencing a classic example of a generationally defining event, one that has vastly different ramifications for people depending on their age. The pandemic has disrupted everyone, but those disruptions look very different depending on your current life stage. What does post-pandemic life look like for someone on the verge of retirement, building a family, just entering the workforce, going to school, or born in the midst of it?
Post-pandemic, the dynamics of the workplace are change and uncertainty. That scramble has been picking up steam every year since 1993, when we began tracking the current generational shift. The macro forces we have seen transforming the employer-employee relationship have been hugely accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic: Changes that were anticipated to take place over twenty years have occurred in a fraction of the time.
The exodus of the First Wave Boomers from the workplace is now swift and steady. And as the oldest Second Wave Boomers now begin entering traditional retirement age, the pressure is on organizations more than ever before to prepare for the impending loss of the institutional wisdom, knowledge, skills, and relationships those Boomers take with them.
Adding to the problem is this—employers can no longer count on employees to reliably retire at 65.
Organizations with significant age bubbles understand they must dedicate substantial resources to support knowledge transfer, wisdom transfer, succession planning, and leadership development. In the past, this process would take place over months, if not years, in anticipation of an older employee’s guaranteed retirement date. However, the flexible nature of employment relationships today means employers don’t know if their oldest employees will retire at 65, 75, or 55.
Boomers who do remain in the workforce past traditional retirement age will continue trending heavily toward reinventing retirement and late career pre-retirement. That could mean anything from working less than full-time,
partially telecommuting, or working nonexclusively for more than one employer as a contracted employee. Employers—and managers—are stuck in the middle of these competing agendas.
Squeezed on either side by two of the largest generations in history, Gen X has assumed the role of the forgotten “middle child” in the generational discussion. Employers cannot continue to allow this to be the norm.
The “prime age” percentage of the workforce is shrinking. More than 61% of today’s workforce is younger than Generation X. As the Second Wave Boomers begin retiring, Gen Xers will be subject to increasing pressure as the gap in experienced leadership grows in organizations of every size, in all industries.
It is critical that Generation X is not left out of the considerations when it comes to human capital management and resource planning. The responsibilities of wisdom, knowledge, and relationship transfer will, in most cases, fall to Gen Xers. That is, they will become the senior leaders who step up and bridge the gap between retiring Boomers and rising Millennials. They will become the managers and supervisors everyone relies on to meet their needs at work and grow in their careers.
The oldest Millennials turn 46 in 2024. And, yes, the youngest Millennials will be 28. But they are no longer the employees fresh from college or high school, the ones with the least real-world job experience. Clinging to the notion that Millennials—most of whom are now mid-career professionals—are naïve or lazy (or eternally 21) isn’t doing anyone any favors.
It’s time to redefine what it means to be a Millennial at work. While Millennials remain the generation most disproportionately affected by debt and the 2008 financial crisis, they are also increasingly in leadership roles in the workforce. They are the generation that spearheaded the movement toward flexibility and work-life balance, but they are also entering the prime of their careers.
Anyone who continues to complain about the horrors “Millennials” are bringing to the workplace is resisting the reality—the free-agent mindset is the prevailing mindset in the workplace for ALL employees.
Most workers today assume that employment relationships will be relatively short and transactional. Workers of all ages are under more pressure as work becomes more demanding for everyone. And as the pressure increases, work-life balance becomes an increasingly powerful countertrend. People of all ages and at all levels are free agents today because they have no other choice.
Gen Z is considered by many to be the first generation of true digital natives. Indeed, they were the first generation to not just grow up with the internet, but to never know a world without it. Entire professions that didn’t exist just ten years ago are now many young people’s dream (or actual!) careers.
Our research among Gen Zers indicates they really care about the human element at work:
Generation Z does not require a radical change in management strategy in order to attract, retain, or engage them. If anything, Gen Z demands that employers commit even more to the fundamentals: meeting regularly one-on-one, coaching performance every step of the way, and supporting ongoing career development.
Most people think of generational change in the workplace as a diversity issue. Some experts will give employers a checklist or cheat sheet for each generation, outlining how to attract, hire, retain, and manage people based on birthdate.
Our research has taught us this: the real punchline of the Great Generational Shift is that employers must rethink human capital management. Gimmicks aren’t enough to engage and retain great employees of any age. Back-to-fundamentals leadership is what works.
The real diversity lessons of the Great Generational Shift are these:
The Great Generational Shift has presented a whole new set of challenges for employers in every industry, employees of all ages, and for managers at every level. We at RainmakerThinking remain committed to helping organizations and
their leaders adapt to whatever changes lie ahead.
We can help: