Beware the "Gray Ceiling": How to Manage a Multi-Generational Workforce

Ira S. Wolfe

President, Success Performance Solutions

The apocalyptic silver tsunami that many economists predicted has rained on the workforce more like a sun shower. Thanks to a combination of delayed retirements, improving-but-still-slow job growth and increasing life expectancy, older workers are waiting longer to exit the workforce—meaning millennials and generation X employees who were poised to take the field have hit an unforeseen obstacle: "the gray ceiling."

In fact, the labor force participation rate for people 55 and older is up by approximately one-third since 1990 (near its highest in decades). Similarly, a recent report by AARP finds that 33 percent of older workers are delaying the age at which they expect retire, and nearly half are now planning to work part-time after they reach retirement age.

Economist Matthew Rutledge calls this delayed exodus of retirees "the lump of labor": "There's only a certain amount of jobs out there, and if an old person's holding that job that means a young person isn't."

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Older workers often bring a vital depth of experience to an organization. But the gray ceiling does present some specific problems for employers, especially in the competition to attract and retain younger talent for future growth and sustainability. So, how can you respond without alienating the older generation? Here are four ways to address the gray ceiling.

Think Multi-Generationally

It's not out of the realm of possibility that your company will soon have five generations working side by side: matures (also called veterans), baby boomers, generation X, millennials and generation Z. Each of these groups has different needs and wants, from attitudes about career to vacation schedules and training and development.

While the mere thought of that may be enough to turn your own hair gray, planning for the dreaded multi-generational workforce is a necessity. A good place to start is asking yourself these vital questions: How prepared is my organization to recruit, manage, motivate and retain a multi-generational workforce? What infrastructure do we have in place that will become obsolete? What will need to be created or tweaked?

Without a talent management plan to ensure a smooth transition, your company's productivity and competitiveness is vulnerable.

Get Ready for Boomers to Act Their Age

As they mature, boomers may require more time to travel, replace a hip, treat cancer, deal with an ailing parent or spouse or spend time with their grandchildren—make sure your organization has policies are in place to address these needs. And eventually, boomers will leave the workforce, so don't delay discussions about the best way to replace older workers. You may just have to wait to implement those plans.

Remember: Turnover Isn't Just About Older Workers

While boomers enjoyed 30- and 40-year long careers at the same company, millennials will seek multiple careers over the course of their working life. For some young workers, even five years doing the same job feels like a lifetime. Succession planning, then, isn't just about finding high-potential talent, but also about dealing with high rates of turnover within the younger generation.

Don't Forget About Generation X

In the race to replace boomers and attract millennials, generation X is often forgotten in the shuffle. Don't do that. These workers are often next in line for management and leadership roles after the older generation ages out, and if they sense a gray ceiling in place or are consistently passed over in favor of millennials, they'll leave to follow their dreams and career aspirations elsewhere.

Further more, generation X workers may be the much-needed link in your multigenerational plan, acting as a conduit between the workers who represent your company's past and those who represent its future.

Photo: Creative Commons

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