The Silver Tsunami, Skill Shortages and Ageism

In the past while, a number of my executive coaching clients have shared with me their experiences with skill shortages and ageism.

Only a few years ago, the world was, some say still is, facing an unprecedented war of talent and competencies. Two critical shifts in workforce demographics were creating an alarming brain drain throughout the world: First, the retirement of the baby boomers, the workforce’s largest segment. And second, the declining birth rates in Western countries. These shifts lead to severe labor shortages and a critical loss of both skills and corporate knowledge.

Many people believed that young people would fill the gap. However, a great many young people are woefully ill prepared for the demands of the knowledge economy. An estimated 70% - 90% of new jobs in North America will require a college degree over the next decade. Yet, only some 35% of 25-29 year graduated from university in the US in 2012. Today, many of today’s youth are seen as a “lost generation”, unable to find meaningful employment.

If not youth then, immigration would surely fill the gap. This was perhaps true once, but no more. Asia, for example, is now having its own skilled labor problems – ranging from airline pilots to lawyers and judges, doctors, accountants... And it’s getting worse with its increasing affluence. So no, immigration and globalization are not the answer to the silver tsunami.

Well then is retaining older employees the answer? Increasingly retirement is seen as a quaint 20th Century custom, which fewer and fewer older employees can seriously hope-for and organizations can ill afford. Many organizations recognize the need to preserve invaluable know-how.

Executives in the late stages of their careers are seen by some as part of the most innovative and creative generation the world has known, as least since the Enlightenment, some 300 years ago. These are the leaders that we need to help weather the silver tsunami. But, by working longer, sometimes well into their so-called golden years, these executives are holding on to jobs that younger employees feel should rightly be theirs. As diverse generations cross paths at work, we see clashes of attitudes, ethics, values and behaviours that result in misunderstandings and conflict. According to a survey a few years ago by Monster.ca, more than half of Canada’s younger workers have a deep resentment of the boomer generation. Younger employees also don’t value the boomer do-or-die work ethic. They place greater value on work-life balance. They believe their performance and pay should be judged on results – not time spent on the job. And when younger workers rise to management roles, they often put little value on the skills of older subordinates.

The silver tsunami, skill shortages and ageism is one of the most serious and complex issues facing business today. Intergenerational work groups are typically seen as one of the most promising solutions. Another calls for older leaders to learn the talk of younger ones. But, these solutions seem partial, insufficient to me. I sense that other, more innovative processes are required for organizations to survive and thrive in the increasingly knowledge-based economy. I expect to write more on this in the future.



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