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How a Generational Shift is Putting New Demands on Managers

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As aging Baby Boomers exit the workforce, they will take with them a great deal of skill, knowledge, wisdom, institutional memory, relationships, and the last vestiges of the old-fashioned work ethic. Organizations with significant “age bubbles” in their employee demographics will need to dedicate substantial resources to support knowledge-transfer and what we call “wisdom transfer,” as well as flexible retention, succession planning, and leadership development.

What does this generational shift mean for employers?

As the global youth tide continues to rise, the new young workforce will bring a whole new set of expectations and behavior that takes for granted the short-term transactional nature of employment.  Organizations that rely disproportionately upon young workers have a permanent “youth bubble” in their employee demographics. Such organizations will be facing the challenges of an increasingly high-maintenance workforce in which employees will not hesitate to make suggestions, special requests, and demands, especially those related to rewards and flexible work conditions. This will require dedicating substantial resources to staffing strategy, selection, on-boarding, training, performance management, accountability, differential rewards, and retention. 

Organizations with significant “youth bubbles” also face the retention challenge we call “the development investment paradox.” The paradox is that employers must invest in developing their new young employees, but the more an employer invests, the more negotiating power the employee has in a short-term transactional labor market. This gives today’s most valuable young employees more power at an earlier stage in employment. What appears as “high-maintenance” is actually this new power to ask for more.

Employers will have many fewer long-term traditional employees. The most successful employers will still maintain core groups of key talent and critical longer-term stakeholders. But these core groups will get smaller and smaller. Meanwhile, any work that can be streamlined will be done through highly efficient production (“churned and squeezed labor”) that can be staffed-up quickly and staffed-down just as quickly.

Employers also will face perpetual staffing shortages. The pressure to get more and more work out of fewer and fewer people means staying lean. At the same time, the rising demand for high-skilled labor, especially in the STEM fields, promises ongoing staffing shortages and technical skill gaps, and employers in every industry will struggle to attract, motivate, and retain the best talent.

The successful organization will have as many different career paths as it has people. Flexible work conditions, learning/knowledge management, pay-for-performance, and coaching-style leadership will be the keys to being an “employer of choice” for in-demand talent. The ability to get people on board, up to speed, and delivering results quickly will be the key to most staffing challenges.  Employers will have to pay high premiums with lush benefits and lots of flexibility for in-demand talent: What we call “dream jobs for superstars.”What’s more, non-superstars will be looking for at least some of these things as well.

What does this generational shift mean for leaders, managers, and supervisors? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Managing people is going to get harder. As the workplace becomes more high- pressure, the post-Boomer workforce becomes more high-maintenance. 

You’ll need to do more with less. Even as managers juggle their own tasks and responsibilities, managerial spans of control (the number of employees officially reporting to each manager) are still increasing and most managers also have a steadily growing burden of administrative duties. It seems to most managers that they have less time than ever to devote to people-management, even as workers of all ages need more regular guidance, direction, support, and coaching in this high-pressure workplace.  Millennials in particular – stereotypically raised by “helicopter parents on steroids” – tend to thrive on strong, highly-engaged leadership; the more structure and boundaries the better. Millennial workers are very unlikely to give their best efforts to a leader whom they perceive as weak or disengaged.

Managers will need to accommodate the growing expectations of an increasingly diverse workforce. Millennials are the most likely to make specific requests regarding work conditions, including the assignment of tasks, resource planning, problem solving, training, scheduling, work location, work space, dispute resolution, guidance, coaching, recognition, promotions, raises, benefits and other rewards.

Workers of all ages today are more likely to disagree with their employers’ missions, policies, and decisions.  They’re also more likely to question or challenge employers’ rules, managers’ instructions, employment conditions, and established rewards structures.  This is especially true of Millennials.

Most workplaces are severely under-managed. For workers of all ages, weak leadership leads to diminished productivity, greater worker error rates, lost resources, increased conflicts among coworkers and other personnel problems, higher turnover among high performers and lower turnover among low performers, as well as managers spending more time on lower level tasks. In today’s increasingly high-pressure workplace, with today’s increasingly high-maintenance workforce, managers cannot afford to be weak and disengaged. 

Effective managers must be strong and highly-engaged. Highly-engaged means conducting ongoing structured communication to provide every worker with regular guidance, direction, support and coaching. Strong means finding ways to do more for workers when they really earn it, which means doing more for some workers and less for others, based on their performance. That means holding people strictly accountable on a daily basis: Setting expectations clearly, providing candid feedback, correcting problems, rewarding good work, and especially rewarding discretionary effort.

Bruce Tulgan is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking Inc., a management research and training firm. He is the author of multiple books including Bridging the Soft Skills Gap and The 27 Challenges Managers Face, and has written for The New York TimesHarvard Business Review and other publications. He can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com, or follow him on twitter @brucetulgan.

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