The Age Old Question

[Note that this is a cross post from my blog; it can be found here, it currently has 32 comments that are also worth reading.]

Last week was a busy one for the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters. In addition to his regular duties he announced a new website, found his way on to twitter, and published the 17th Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada. I want to share 3 neat visualizations (h/t to @Jesgood) but don’t want to go into the nitty gritty of the report:

  1. Word Net
  2. Word Tree
  3. Word Cloud

Instead I want to focus on something that came out as part of the report, something I tossed out there on twitter, and that spurred a number of in-person conversations with some of my colleagues. According to the report there is not a single executive in the Federal Public Service under the age of 30.

Before proceeding, I just want to say that in over two years of writing I have purposely steered clear of any discussion of age; that I don’t necessarily agree with those who advance arguments rooted in generational differences; and that I expect this column to be contentious (despite my best efforts for balance). The reason I have stayed away from the issue is that it is generally divisive, polarizes people based on their age and tends to invoke a more guttural (rather than intellectual) response.

Start with the Data

I took the liberty of mashing up the data from the report to include both the entire public service and the executive cadre on a single chart. Here is the graph:

Ending With Questions

We discuss the need for new and innovative ideas so often in the public sector yet within the hierarchical structures, an organizations’ ability to act on those ideas is firmly entrenched in the executive cadre.

Put another way, the public servants under thirty are in positions where the best they can do is advise up; and if advising up is considered as “going against the grain” it becomes a very difficult conversation for new public servants (or am I underestimating the degree to which advice = influence?).

For the record, I don’t believe for a second that innovation only happens in the under-30 age bracket. Similarly, I don’t believe for a second that the skill set for public sector executive leadership is as firmly concentrated in the 45-59 age band as the data shows (or am I underestimating the years it takes to move up the ranks?).

Also, if you have any comparable data (executives by age band) in other jurisdictions or private sector companies, I would love to see it and do a side-by-side comparison. I think having comparable data would help guide the discussion.

My question is this: is there a tension between the constant push for new and innovative ideas and lack of young executives in the public sector? Consider the can of worms opened … please, I am very interested in all of your thoughts on the matter. Please share them via comments.

I’ll start – I feel as though there is in fact a juxtaposition here, although articulating it in a way that doesn’t alienate people is incredibly difficult.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on a related question I raised last week, Nick (“Are Civil Servants Too Old and Selfish for Government 2.0?”).

I agree with you here: “I don’t believe for a second that innovation only happens in the under-30 age bracket.” Innovation can come from people of any age.

Diverge with you here: “I don’t believe for a second that the skill set for public sector executive leadership is as firmly concentrated in the 45-59 age band as the data shows…” All kinds of studies from the National Merit Systems Protection Board, the US Office of Personnel, the Partnership for Public Service and others reveal that the leadership in US government is definitely graying. 90% of senior level leaders are eligible for retirement between now and 2015…and 60% of the entire workforce. So that’s definitely where the power is concentrate here in the US. Play with the US data here:

Answering your specific question – “Is there a tension between the constant push for new and innovative ideas and lack of young executives in the public sector?” I definitely think there’s a tension. And young people don’t necessarily bring innovation because they are young. They bring innovative ideas because they are NEW! They bring a fresh set of eyes to age-old problems.

People of all ages and sectors become mentally myopic – they get so immersed in an activity/ project (and have been so for so long) that they become relatively incapable of looking at the problem with an innovative perspective.

So the tension is less about age and more about allowing people who are new to the problem to take a crack at it. So the key could be having a bunch of smart, innovative civil servants from one agency look at the challenges of another to see if they can tease out a solution that may have been on the surface but impossible to perceive among people who look at it every day.

Or give graduate students in MPA programs (or other unrelated fields!) a chance to think about it and propose potential fixes – they don’t know why “it’s always been done that way” or that the current approach is “how it’s supposed to be.”

Of course, you can always turn the private and non-profit sectors loose on a lagging, long-term problem. They’re always happy to chime in and champion a new cause.

Just get new, fresh eyes on it. The age of the innovators won’t matter.


Would love to see the numbers in private sector. My sense is always a small percentage but gov’t is crazy low.

One of the fundamental pieces of a gov’t career may be it is harder to super fast-track. Years in time is still so key. Vs in private sector where a couple years at McKinsey, Harvard MBA, and a few years work gets you to be an executive in your late 20s.

Peter Sperry

@ GovLoop “One of the fundamental pieces of a gov’t career may be it is harder to super fast-track. Years in time is still so key. Vs in private sector where a couple years at McKinsey, Harvard MBA, and a few years work gets you to be an executive in your late 20s.”

Yeah, we kind of noticed the youthful leadership in the private sector during the M&A meltdown of the 80s, the internet boom and bust of the 90s, the housing bubble of the 00’s and the most recent financial services collapse.

Nicholas Charney

@Steve – I really want to see some comparable data too…

@Andrew – re: “diverge” I actually agree that that is where the decision making power is but not necessarily all the leadership skills. I am starting to align my thinking with yours w/respect to NEWness vis-a-vis YOUNGness; as you no doubt teased out of my comment on your original blog entry…

It would seem that we need an antidote for prolonged exposure to hierarchical systems… ;p


True Peter. May not be the best analogy. And there is some examples from the Johnson “Best and Brightest” era where he brought in a ton of young smart people and it backfired.

I wonder if that is inherent to government and a good thing. The pace to climb…


Another key piece –

My dad always said “Is your 10 years experience really one year of experience done 10 times?” Or ten 1-year stints of learning diverse skills.

Nina Adrianna

Yes, I do think that there is a tension between the organization that says it wants new and innovative ideas, and yet lacks young executives. The tension is created by retaining the current system and culture.

The future workplace will be one in which there is more decentralized leadership and decision-making. It’s also going to be one with more flexible work arrangements, including part-time workers and employees with diverse, short-term job experiences rather long-term careers.

Skills such as teamwork, problem-solving and getting shit done will be more important than how many hours you’ve put in and how well you’ve learned to play the stale cultural game of the organization that often constrains innovation.

Changing the system and culture requires a shake-up. More young executives could help in doing this (of course not the only factor).

Meanwhile, pushing from below is not always a bad thing (put is a different topic).

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Nick Hate to admit, but hadn’t seen your comments yet over on GenShift..been minding the store here at GovLoop…but just looked and responded to the other folks there. It’s a great topic. I will still maintain that people in age cohorts have certain qualities as a group that are driven by their common experiences and travels through unique periods in history…but most of who we are as humans is tied to genetics and immediate environment.

To Ari’s point on my blog, environment in this case happens to be a bureaucratic culture where many people have operated for decades…so as we are saying, it’s less about age and more that they’ve been heavily influenced by a specific work setting over a long period of time. And older does not equal bad. It’s just a different kind of experience.

So the key here is not to on-board new folks and expect them to operate the same…but to share with them current processes and ask if they have ideas for improvement right from the moment they arrive…well before they’re influenced by/inundated with that culture so that true innovation and fresh perspectives can lead to positive changes related to the efficiency and effectiveness of government performance.

Nina Adrianna

Andrew, it’s great to ‘ask’ people if they have new ideas. We do quite a bit of ‘asking’ and ‘consulting’ lower-ranked employees through various modes, like sitting around in circle and writing ideas on post-its, ideas that are later sucked into a vacuum to ‘contribute’ to business or HR plans, plans that are status-quo enough to be approved by Execs.

But, is that sufficient for drastic change? I don’t think so. If we want real change, we need to have fresh leaders. Otherwise the fresh ideas get co-opted and translated into old processes and culture.

Sometimes, fresh ideas come from the under 30s (not always, but sometimes.) It would help change if we had more young people as leaders.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

This is anecdotal but could be an interesting research project. When I was a PMF and working at Social Security (1997), all the PMFs had to attend a week-long training session. As part of the training, we had a Myers-Brigg profile created for us and our mentors (who were senior Federal executives).

If memory serves, the PMFs seemed to be mainly of three MBTI types: ENTP, ENFJ, and ENTJ. Most of the mentors were the mirror opposite: ISTJ, ISFJ, and ISTP. To give you an idea of what this means here are the profiles for two of the types:

Quiet, serious, earn success by thoroughness and dependability. Practical, matter-of-fact, realistic, and responsible. Decide logically what should be done and work toward it steadily, regardless of distractions. Take pleasure in making everything orderly and organized – their work, their home, their life. Value traditions and loyalty.

Frank, decisive, assume leadership readily. Quickly see illogical and inefficient procedures and policies, develop and implement comprehensive systems to solve organizational problems. Enjoy long-term planning and goal setting. Usually well informed, well read, enjoy expanding their knowledge and passing it on to others. Forceful in presenting their ideas.

I don’t know if this is a generational effect or something about government in 1960s and 1970s that attracted certain MBTI types for that time but no longer does.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Nina – You and I are definitely of the same mind. I share a vision similar to what you articulated below in a couple blog posts – “Next Generation Government: Mobile, Measurable and Malleable” and “6 Competencies of a Gov 2.0 Leader”.

So what are your ideas for fast-tracking 20- and 30-somethings into leadership positions? Got sample programs…that have worked in government? I’d love to see it…but often in government, people feel like readiness for leadership is equivalent to the number of years of service. I just told a group of folks last week at the National Conference of State Legislatures that the difference between Boomers/Traditionals and Gen X/Y is that the first group believes you have to “earn” a leadership position through years of hard work while the latter are believers that you can “learn” the skills fast and step in to make an impact sooner than later. I’m with the second camp. Thoughts?

Amanda Blount

Concerning older Exec. ages in the Government, I look at this issue from another angle.

Let’s look at the ages which we normally do things. 18 (or even 19) start college (and this is if you were a traditional student who actually started on time). Finished college around 22-23. Some stayed in until they finished their Masters (keeping in mind, most Execs I know have a Masters, so this would make sense). Say if all was perfect (which rarely is) and the student finished school on time, they would finish between 24-26. Now let’s go find a really good starter job which also may pay off some student loans (even today, most positions in Government service do not pay off student loans). Next step; the student loans are mostly paid off with the first and second jobs, the student probably is married, and had a few kids.

We are looking at 30 before most people in the past even thought about working for the Government. Only recently was it economical for people to work for the Government and even now some say they only work there because no one else is hiring.

Back to our student; First real job at the Government in the past, let’s say 30. With some experience to get in the door, some people may have been picked up at GS 7 or 9 (even with a degree). Basically, after a few years in the civilian sector and the student loans paid off, they would have had to take a pay cut to work for the Government. But, let’s say they were willing to do that. It may take years to work up the Government ladder from GS-7/9 to the supervisor’s positions. And don’t make anyone mad along the way, or you will never get promoted. Now let’s examine this same person with young kids, and look where the Government jobs are located; mostly in big cities. So, a person with two kids and a spouse is going to take a pay cut and move their family to the big city to work for the Government, which used to be the great example of low pay. (Remember jokes about Government employee shoes always being cheap).

See, this is why I believe, in the past, most people jumped into Government service later in life. Too many hurdles to jump in the early years (let’s not forget the KSAs everyone hates), and then later in life the Government does provide things older employees want and need; great benefits for those with pre-existing conditions, and those looking for an older group to work with.

Other things become more important as you mature; Drug free work force, smoke free work place, older group to work with, great benefits for those who have medical issues, calmer group, slower pace….. I believe many of these reasons from the past is why the group is older, not because they are less creative or any less rebellious.

With the economy the way it is, more money being put into employee incentives, more civilian ideas (ROWE), and other innovative ideas coming about, we are seeing a lot more young employees then before. Since the face of the Government work force is getting younger, then by right, the age of the future Execs will be younger. I really believe that age of Execs will be much lower in the next ten years. If the Government is recruiting and retaining employees in their earlier 20s, then these employees will have 10 years under their belt at the ripe young age of 35.

That is my two cents anyway.

Nicholas Charney

@Amanda – thanks for the comment, someone up here in Canada found a stat that seemed to indicate the average age for joining the PS was 37 …

@Nina/Andrew – great convo you two =)

@Savi – thx for the links, looking at ’em right now …

@Bill – everyone invokes Myers-Briggs … I’m not being critical but wondering why?

Amanda Blount

@ Nicholas – That sounds along the lines of American Government (but I don’t have numbers to back that up). Even though I was in the Military at a very young age, I did not start my first real Goverment position until I was 36. Think about this; with a degree, lots of civilian experience, and many years Active military, to get in “the door” I had to start at GS-5 many years ago. I took a pay cut to start out, just so I could get to where I am now. Many people can’t do something like this later in life like I did.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Nicholas: “everyone invokes Myers-Briggs … I’m not being critical but wondering why?”

In my PMF class, we had a wide range of ages so I don’t believe that age is as much a factor as temperament. I think that the differences in MB between the PMFs and the established Federal executives points toward something else other than age.

A good book on this subject is “Retiring the Generation Gap” by Jennifer Deal –