Gray Matters … a Lot

By John Hollon

Oct. 14, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, at an event in Chicago called the Motivation Show, I attended a seminar titled “Reward & Recognition: Best Practices and Solutions That Work.” Little did I know it, but this session was a glimpse of the future—and it was a future I didn’t recognize.

The two speakers were the CEO and marketing director for a company that pitches reward solutions (prizes, travel and other such goodies) to businesses trying to find ways to better motivate and reward their workforce. What surprised me was that their presentation was all about how to reward and motivate Generation X and Generation Y employees, and that their idea of “best practices and solutions that work” in this area apparently included ignoring anyone in the workforce over the age of 40.

In other words, if you are a baby boomer (or beyond), there’s no need to reward or recognize you because you aren’t going to be around much longer anyway.

That kind of thinking runs counter to the premise of our cover story this week (“Face of the Future”), in which Workforce Management staff writer Ed Frauenheim challenges the conventional wisdom that America is heading for a huge labor shortage because of all the retiring boomers.

The story quantifies what I have been saying for some time: that the looming labor shortage is a lot of overblown rhetoric. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Reason No. 1: Boomers are unlikely to follow the neat and tidy retirement patterns of the past. For better or worse, members of the post-World War II generation have always done things their own way. Why would they be any different in retirement?

And that ties to Reason No. 2: People are living longer, healthier lives. Life expectancy in the U.S. has risen from around 50 in 1910 to 77.6 years today, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Baby boomers will probably retire later than anticipated (if at all) and will be more likely to ease into a working retirement where they continue to work, but just not as much as before.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be shortages of people in some areas—for instance, in science- and math-driven fields like engineering or fast-growing sectors like health care and physical therapy—but rather, that the shortages will be in small pockets of the economy rather than across the board.

If you are a business executive or workforce management professional, one of your keys to future success will be keeping as many healthy, productive and experienced older employees on the job and in the workforce for as long as you can.

And forget about the longstanding practice of saving money by dumping veteran employees in favor of cheaper, younger talent. A new Conference Board survey of leaders from a consortium of business research organizations found that the incoming generation of young workers is “sorely lacking in much of the needed workplace skills,” both basic academic and more advanced applied skills. As the study concludes: “The future workforce is here—and it is ill-prepared.”

If you believe the Conference Board survey, keeping older workers in the workforce will increasingly become more of a business imperative because organizations will need those veterans to help mentor the younger generation of employees who don’t have all the required skills needed as they enter the workforce. Smart executives will realize that they need more good workers of all ages if they are going to continue to grow and succeed in our increasingly competitive global business environment.

That brings me back to my seminar in Chicago. The two guys who put on the reward and recognition session weren’t bad guys, just terribly shortsighted. They had a lot of interesting things to say, but missed the boat in failing to recognize that older workers are an important part of the workforce who are still going to be around—and need to be recognized and motivated—for some time to come.

Peter Drucker once said that the goal of a manager should be to “make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual.” That’s true of all workers, today and tomorrow. If your business doesn’t have practices that focus on the motivation and productivity of the entire workforce, you’re missing the boat as well.

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