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Boomer Talent

Much has been made of the fact that 2015 was the peak year for the number of Baby Boomers reaching age 65. While not remarkable by itself, it reflects the enormous number of older Americans who are at or near retirement age. But to infer that Boomers are destined to call it quits at the traditional retirement age of 65 signals a serious misunderstanding of our generation.

A recent edition of Pacific Standard (September/October 2015) contained an interesting article entitled, The Aging Advantage. This article, by Bonnie Tsui, focused on the career of Barbara Beskind, a 91year old designer at the San Francisco design firm IDEO. The story was not so much about her remarkable career, brilliance or mental acuity as it was about the value of her experience, knowledge and ability to contribute.

From experience and research, it is clear that older workers have great value. It is also clear that there is an interesting social phenomenon in the U.S. that diminishes the perceived value of those past a certain age. In most other developed societies (and many that are less developed), older citizens are highly valued but in America, they are often seen as a burden or irrelevant. Research over several decades reveals a significantly different message.

Throughout most industrialized nations the number of older citizens is increasing. While unremarkable in itself, this cohort is growing percentage-wise while there is a corresponding reduction in the number of younger, employable citizens. In China, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Italy, England, and many other countries, including the U.S., there is growing concern that there will be an insufficient number of new, talented workers to replace those moving toward retirement. More importantly, the loss of institutional memory, technical skill and deep knowledge is accelerating at an astounding rate. Within this context, most organizations give little thought to the rich networks of contacts built by older workers over four or five decades. Once retired, these workers take these amazingly complex and valuable networks with them and they are lost to the organization forever.

Clearly, those between the ages of 55 and 80 collectively possess a treasure of information, skill, awareness, perspective, knowledge and contacts. They have enormous skill and a proven ability to accomplish complex assignments. Consider the amount of on-the-job training, professional development, education and experience that is accumulated over 40 to 50 years of work. Does that just disappear when one reaches ‘retirement age?’ Hardly. What seems to be missing is the recognition that the sum total of all the training and development, education and experience is a potent and valuable capital asset. Unfortunately, this asset is wasted by the vast majority of public and private organizations.

According to Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, recent studies at the Center show that older workers are more emotionally stable, have fewer conflicts, are more prone to collaborate, are better mentors, and deal with intense challenges with more patience and equanimity. They are helpful, productive and less prone to workplace politics. In many ways, older workers have already built their careers, so are more willing to help younger workers build their own careers. The challenge is getting younger workers and management teams to recognize the value of this latent and underutilized asset.

Most Boomers enjoy working with younger workers. While there are troublesome idiosyncrasies, such as their constant toying with cell phones, Facebook and Internet searches, the energy, spirit and inquisitive nature of young people is a powerful force. Mixing older and younger workers can produce highly innovative results while building collaborative cultures that promote mentoring and a natural transference of knowledge and skill. More critically, older workers become comfortable with sharing their long-established networks and introducing early and mid-career employees to acquaintances throughout their communities and industries. What is generally misunderstood is that these introductions provide professional credibility that would have not been possible without first being legitimized by the senior worker.

Older Americans are already here. They are in the workplace and are active in the community. They know how to get things done, have great contacts and have little use for workplace politics. While there are exceptions, there is overwhelming evidence that older workers are able to learn as well as their younger counterparts, are great problem solvers, and tend to know what to do when tasked with an assignment. Above all, they are experienced. There is very little they have not seen, learned how to do or had to overcome.

The message here is that America’s older workers are an untapped resource that is being overlooked and often cast aside at a time when every organization needs thoughtful and capable can-do talent. No private or public organization can afford to lose its contact networks, support systems, or deep institutional knowledge and unique skills. But, it is essential to understand that these networks and skillsets reside with people, not organizations. Give some thought to new ways to fully use and integrate older workers into the evolving fabric of your organization. If productivity, insight, harmony and preservation of institutional memory is valued, seeking seasoned talent and effectively using existing older workers will be a wise investment.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out multiple times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare private and public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).