X Marks the Spot: Part One

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Over the past five or 10 years, millions of words have been written about the imminent departure of KAA-Boomers from the workforce and the talent crisis this will precipitate.  Yet some workplace experts are now saying there won’t be a talent crisis because there’s another enormous generation – Generation Y, the children of the KAA-Boomers — now entering the workforce in record numbers.  As a result, many more words are being written about how to engage, support and motive these leaders of tomorrow.

It’s true that Gen Y will solve the talent crisis – in 20 years!  Yes, Generation Y is highly educated, hard-working, ambitious and talented, but they’re still in their 20s and it will be decades before they’re ready to assume the senior roles now being vacated by retiring Boomers.

What’s surprising is how few words are being written about the crux of the problem – Generation X, that small demographic wedged between the Boomers and the Ys.  Now in their 30s and 40s, this is the group that should now be inheriting those emptying senior roles — but they’re not, and for two reasons. One, they’re simply not enough of them.  In fact, they’re less than half the size of the Boomer generation. Canadian economist David Foote dubbed this demographic the Baby Bust generation because so few children were born between 1965 and 1980.  Secondly, Gen Xers have not been equipped with the skills, experience or knowledge necessary to assume those emptying leadership roles.  It’s not their fault.  Because of their small numbers and roller coaster economy, Generation X has been mostly overlooked by the business world. Which is really unfortunate because  they are the key to coping with the impending crisis facing organizations in virtually every sector.

The past

Gen Xers have always found it difficult competing against the enormous Boomer generation who today inhabit the most powerful leadership positions throughout North America.  In addition, hiring freezes and downsizings in the 1990s cut a swathe through the junior ranks – who at that time were mostly Xers.  As a result, there were very few junior employees left who could steadily accrue more experience, gain more wisdom and prepare for more responsible roles within the organization and 20 years later, most large companies now have very few experienced, senior level employees in their 40s.

Even those fortunate Xers who survived the downsizings of the 90s and rose up the corporate ladder found their progress stalled by those Boomers ahead of them who had no intention of leaving to make way for new blood.  The sheer number of Boomers meant that dozens competed for the same job and the vast majority who didn’t rise to the executive level battled it out in mid management.  It’s not only the most powerful positions that are occupied by Boomers – it’s pretty much every key position within the organization!  The recent recession and a slow recovery only made matters worse for ambitious Xers when many older Boomers saw their investments tank and shelved their retirement plans.

The present

For organizations of every size and in every sector this means intense competition for the best and brightest from small Gen X talent pool – and this will continue for at least 10 to 15 until the vast Gen Y demographic gets up to speed and acquires the necessary experience and expertise. While it’s important to continue focussing on developing and mentoring Gen Y and persuading key KAA-Boomers to delay retirement, it’s equally important to invest in succession plans directed at Generation X so they’re ready to step out from the wings and play leading roles in their companies’ future success.

While this sounds like a logical and straightforward solution, it’s not, because Gen Xers, for the first time in their lives, now hold all the cards – at least in business. Long overshadowed by the largest and second largest generations in history, overlooked by marketers, and ignored by leaders, this small demographic knows they’re a valuable commodity and can have the pick of the best positions. They know that if their company isn’t offering them the right career opportunities, there are plenty of other company that will.

For organizations desperate to fill senior spots this means one thing – it’s time to turn the spotlight on Gen X and modify recruitment, retention and development to protect an increasingly valuable asset.

Barbara Jaworski is the founder and CEO of the Workplace Institute and developer of the Older Workforce Strategy Toolkit which helps organizations manage their workers, the KAA-Boomer transition and develop an older workforce strategy. She is author of two books in the KAA-Boomer series and co- organizer of the Summit on Mature Workforces taking place in Alberta. Barbara founded the Best Employers Award for 50-Plus Canadians and is recognized as a leading expert on baby boomers in the workplace. She can be reached at bjaworski@workplaceinstitute.org

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