by Tim Verras, Sophicity
The looming retirement of the Baby Boomer Generation is a concern on the horizon for municipal IT managers. Staff with decades of experience in the technologies and processes crucial to the municipality’s operations will be handing over positions to middle or entry level employees. The question for IT managers becomes: How do I manage the transition? Choosing the right path can mean the difference between a well-educated staff that benefits from the learning of its elders versus one that is forever reinventing the wheel. Before this problem can be addressed, it would be beneficial to understand the generational dynamics at play as Boomers leave the workplace to coming generations.
The Generation Gaps
There are three main generations present in the modern workplace – the Baby Boomers, Generation-X and Generation-Y. We’ll take a brief look at each generation’s traits to better understand the social dynamic at play when an IT manager begins planning the transition. It’s important to note that we’ll be speaking very generally about each generation; any given individual will display traits that do not fit these generalizations. However, these generational descriptions are backed by years of studies and sociological research and have been shown to affect both the cultural and business climates in which they come into play.
According to preeminent generational scholars William Strauss and Neil Howe, the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1960, are 76 million strong and the largest generation in the history of the United States. Boomers were brought up in the post-war prosperity of the Eisenhower era which placed a strong emphasis on teamwork and highly codified social norms as a way to maintain the “American way of life” in the face of the McCarthy-era threat of Communist intervention. These children grew up as Mouseketeers, watched television instead of the radio, and were raised during the worries of the Korean War and the early Cold War. As they grew, the Boomers retained their ethic of power and solidarity through teamwork but refocused it on what they felt were the overly conservative societal rules of the generations before them. In this sense, Boomers viewed themselves as agents of social change and out of this shift in thinking arose the hippie and civil rights movements. As the Boomers grew into their thirties and watched America change, many traded in their VW Minibus for a traditional family, a desk job and a home in the suburbs. And it is here through their lens of social change and teamwork that they have spent the last 30 years transforming how American business operates, moving from Industrial Revolution-era large corporations to smaller, more nimble companies as seen in the rag-tag, upstart nature of early Silicon Valley.
Coming after the Boomers is Generation-X, who were born between 1961 and 1980 and number around 52 million. These children were raised in an era of great uncertainty, where a post-Watergate America lost faith in the Presidency, Vietnam veterans attempted to reintegrate into a society that seemed to shun them, the Cold War began to come to a close, and AIDS had parents and educators scared for their children. As gender roles loosened and the economy slowed, many Gen-X children had two full-time working parents and were likely raised by a combination of daycare, latch key programs and other family members. Thus many children were left to their own devices for increasing amounts of time and quickly learned a strong self-survival instinct. Gen-X was also the first generation to grow up during the Computer Age, as technologies developed during WWII and the NASA space programs began to make their way into the public sector with the help of Boomer start-ups like Microsoft and Apple. Increased availability of technology combined with lessened supervision saw many Gen-X teens turn towards computer technology as a way to entertain and inform. They embraced pinball and video games, built home computers, and experimented with completely new forms of instrument-less music like electronica and hip-hop – all arts that stressed individual interaction. In short, Gen-X adopted an experimental, do-it-yourself ethos where trial and error trumped social consensus or the instruction manual. In business, this ethos manifested itself in the DotCom Boom of the 90’s, where disruptive technologies and brash start-up companies became the norm.
Generation-Y, born from 1981 to 1996, grew up in an era that saw the country reevaluating its values and role in the world. The DotCom bubble had burst, the nation reeled from the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and families with 50% divorce rates were the norm. In school, the Boomers were in charge and reinvented the education system to be more team and reward focused while post-Columbine paranoia led to clampdowns on the freedoms of previous generations. As such, kids were graded on how well they worked with others and everyone got a trophy at the end of the day, but they were also closely monitored for aberrant behavior. Constantly ferried around between day care, different sets of parents and school, Gen-Y came to rely on technology for building and networking with social cliques, particularly after the widespread adoption of home internet. Visual forms of communication ruled the day, enabling instant gratification and community building on a global scale through email, instant messaging, file sharing, chat rooms, and web-enabled video games. As Gen-Y numbers grow in the workforce, they come to it with expectations of connectivity and instant communication, free access to information, reward for effort, and close monitoring by superiors.
Managing the Transition
Clearly, IT managers have a complex corridor to navigate when managing the transition from the Boomer workforce, as each generation arrives with a unique and sometimes conflicting set of values. With careful planning the transition can avoid chaos, bringing innovation and energy into the workplace and allowing IT management to face the future with confidence. There are number of ways to manage the change:
A municipality can add a great deal of efficiency if its newer employees benefit from the learning of their elders. In the modern workplace, there are two ways to ensure a smooth transition of knowledge:
Mentoring – Set up a mentoring program where the soon-to-be-retiree works closely with new employees, teaching the ins-and-outs of the job and slowly transitioning job functions until the new workers are self-sufficient. Mentors need to teach more than “how-to” procedures, focusing also on life/business skills training, introductions to key contacts, project histories, and future planning; anything to help new employees better understand and be efficient at their job.
Documentation – Set up wikis to capture procedural and historical information so that it can easily be managed and searched for years to come. A document management system will allow the mountains of documents collected over a lifetime of work to be freed from file cabinets, local hard drives, and email archives for use as education material and templates. Physical documents should be digitized for easy entry into the management system. Finally, set up a contact relationship management system (or CRM) to collect information on the long list of valuable contacts that the retiree has spent years nurturing.
Create Attractive Jobs
As times change, so do job expectations. Newer generations have watched their parents’ pensions, retirement plans, and even job security die on the vine after 20 years of working for the same organization. As a result, where the average single job span of Boomers is 15-20 years, for Gen-Y it can be as low as 3-5 years. Newer workers are more apt to view themselves like free agents on a sports team instead of ardent supporters of a single organization. Thus, when planning for the future, newer generations prefer shorter term rewards instead of waiting for retirement. Gen-X will want amenities that stress individuality such as flex hours, work-from-home programs, and more vacation time, while Gen-Y looks for unencumbered access to information, comped internet and mobile phone bills, and an informal but communal office atmosphere. As such perks become more prevalent in the private sector, municipal governments need to adapt in order to stay competitive for top tech talent.
Consolidation and Outsourcing
With nearly 75 million Baby Boomers and only 52 million in Generation X, there aren’t enough potential employees to fill positions vacated by retirees. Yet, this gap may represent a great opportunity for a municipality to solve the problem by modernizing the IT environment. Instead of staffing a new position, consider investing in technologies that add efficiency and automation, allowing job roles to be consolidated.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” As the Baby Boomers begin retiring to the cruise ships and country ponds of the world, it falls on IT management to effectively manage the transition by staying in tune with these ‘new fashions.’ Each employee will use a mix of mentoring, self-learning, and peer socialization to prepare for the job, and organizations that provide multiple ways to facilitate these will handle the change well. Also, if municipalities are able to attract top young talent with innovative job offers, they will be able to better compete in the current ‘free agent’ business environment. Lastly, the exodus of Boomer employees frees up IT managers to experiment with new technologies, transforming the municipality into a lean, connected, and wise organization ready to face a whole new set of challenges.
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