It can no longer be assumed the 80 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 will soon begin retiring in record numbers.
The global financial crisis shrunk the savings of many Boomers, creating the need to rebuild financial resources by continuing on the job. Employers will have highly motivated and capable Boomer employees who are bent on working past early retirement dates or even the traditional retirement age of 65. The full trend is still developing, but it seems certain Baby Boomers will remain a large and active part of the workforce, and innovative strategies will be necessary for companies to retain and motivate larger numbers of older workers than previously anticipated. Such strategies will play on Baby Boomers strengths, reflect their shared history, and accommodate the late stage of their careers and the prioritization of values associated with this stage.
Most organizations understand there are shared generational characteristics in the primary demographic segments of their workforce. That keeps the human resource management spotlight right where it has been for well over three decades—on Baby Boomers who continue to think of themselves as "stars of the show." Because they grew up and entered the workforce during a time of tremendous economic expansion, Boomers tend to be optimistic. As members of large families and large classrooms, they learned about teamwork at school and at home due to the necessity of sharing in both environments. Somewhat paradoxically, Boomers pursued their own personal gratification, uncompromisingly, and often at a high price to self and others. This tension between team play and individual assertiveness followed the Baby Boomers throughout their history.
The originators of the "Me Generation," they searched their souls—repeatedly, obsessively, and recreationally. They see themselves as "trend-setters" and what others aspire to be like.
This kind of self-focus is central to the Boomer leadership style. Many Boomers are now at the peak of their career arc, in senior executive or other managerial positions. They typically practice leadership as a collegial and consensual exercise, yet sometimes with a benignly despotic emphasis—when the "me" overrules the "we." Boomers as leaders genuinely are passionate and concerned about participation and spirit in the workplace, yet their intense inner-directedness means they sometimes have a hard time practicing the management style they profess.
Boomers were socialized in the workplace during a period of more formal and personal business relationships and in a more rule-oriented business culture. As a result, Boomers may place too much emphasis on traditional vertical hierarchies in their management style, as they tend to create reward and recognition structures for others based on their own needs. Boomer leadership behavior has inescapably been influenced throughout their careers by hierarchical environments where higher pay and position defined success. They thus believe career rewards should be tangible and material and tied to personal performance. This is not to say Boomers as leaders totally ignore the input and needs of others. In fact, Boomers value trust and open communication built around physical presence and face-to-face interactions. But Boomers' leadership style is not effusive. They have a high degree of emotional stability that emphasizes rational thoughts and processes, combined with a high degree of insistence and consistency with a strong commitment to the organization.
The implications of Baby Boomers continuing major roles in their organizations is profound when viewed against the equally large number of Millennial generation workers in their early 20s ready and eager to assume job responsibilities. This does not have to create inter-generational conflict in the workplace. Personality research shows inter-generational workforce differences are not fundamental, that each generation brings similar values to the concepts of family, integrity, achievement, love, and competence.
The primary difference found between generations is the priority in which each age cohort orders each of these values. This priority of values is strongly influenced by the stage any given person has reached in his or her career cycle. Those stages can be precisely defined according to how career development and responsibility have progressed.
- Stage one: The entry level, with absolute reliance on external authority.
- Stage two: Awareness of the possibility of a "wrong" decision.
- Stage three: Substitution of process as authority.
- Stage four: Awareness of multiple "good" decisions.
- Stage five: Emergence of the individual as a decision-maker capable of leadership.
- Stage six: Awareness of the chaos of free choice.
- Stage seven: Beginning the integration of self and the career role.
- Stage eight: Experiencing commitment to career and organization.
- Stage nine: Expansion of self-created roles.
At this point in their careers, Boomers have most likely reached the highest career cycle stages. They have effectively integrated their sense of self with their career roles, and experience real commitment to their job roles through that integration. Autonomy and experience become central to the Boomer at this point, leading to exploration and creation of self-created roles in the professional environment. That means placing emphasis on competence and fulfillment of individual needs as Boomers look to the future. The decision to remain in the work environment may be in part financially driven for many Boomers, but the desire for self-actualization through work experience is just as strong a driver. To be sure, family becomes more important as the desire to build close relationships merge with continued personal achievement. But with their children grown, Boomers have greater flexibility to integrate and balance family and work considerations than do members of younger age cohorts.
Motivating Boomer behavior in positive and productive directions cannot be done through stereotyped generalizations. Instead, it requires reward and recognition commensurate with career cycle positioning and individual needs, recognizing the hard work and effort that enabled Boomers to reach this point. Two elements are particularly effective, given Boomers want to be seen as partners to the organization or they will seek out opportunities to establish their own roles. First, organizations should provide opportunities to build success, letting the individual have autonomy to structure how they will use them. Second, organizations should create programs that allow Boomers to mentor others, providing recognition while it uses the value of their experience. This is a win-win approach for Boomers themselves, for younger Millennial and Generation X co-workers, and the organization itself.
Richard Goldman is chief operating officer of Birkman International, Inc. He can be reached at 713-623-2760 or email@example.com