In the already-complex, multigenerational workplace, economic conditions are stalling normal career progress. An expert advises on maintaining productivity while a business officer from each age group offers a viewpoint on work in a time of wage freezes, layoffs, and delayed retirements.
By Margo Vanover Porter
Financial fears dominate the water-cooler conversations at institutions across the country. Listen in and you'll hear snippets of stories about hiring freezes, state appropriation cutbacks, escalating insurance premiums, and evaporating bonuses—just to name a few hot topics.
While most agree that the recession is cutting a wide swath across all generations of employees (see figure for a snapshot of generation descriptions and birth years), some may argue that the economic downturn is hitting each age group differently, perhaps even disproportionately. Millennials (born between 1982 and 2000) lament the lack of jobs. Generation Xers (also Gen Xers or Xers, 1965–81) wonder when they will ever be promoted. Baby Boomers (1946–64) and Traditionalists (born before 1946) cringe when they open investment statements and realize that their retirement dreams must be postponed.
For ideas and solutions to address each group's issues, intensified by a shaky business climate, Business Officer recently interviewed Lynne C. Lancaster, a partner in BridgeWorks. The coauthor of When Generations Collide: Who They Are,Why They Clash, How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work (HarperCollins, 2002), Lancaster is a frequent speaker and consultant on bridging generational gaps for management success. She, along with partner and coauthor David Stillman, addressed NACUBO's Thought Leaders Program earlier this year. Lancaster and Stillman's new book, The M-Factor, will be released in January 2010; it will explore the factors that have shaped the Millennial generation and the relevant trends people need to understand to recruit, retain, engage, and collaborate with these younger workers.
To get an up-close look at the current economy's impact on each generation, Business Officer also talked to four business officers from various colleges and universities, each representing a different generational group. They sum up how the recession is touching their lives, careers, employees, and institutions.
Interview with Lynne C. Lancaster
How do the views of Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials differ when considering the current recession?
Traditionalists are fantastic role models because they've seen it all before. They tend to say, “Be calm. This, too, shall pass.” We can learn useful coping strategies from Traditionalists.
Baby Boomers are very shaken by the recession, because they typically have not saved well for the future. At the same time, Boomers know how to survive and to work their way through challenging times. They still want to come out on top when the economy recovers.
Xers, who are our best innovators, grew up with change so early in their careers that they are good at dealing with it. They experienced the dot-com boom and bust, and they've seen the economy's spikes and lows. They know how to go right on making change and trying new things and exploding old myths and getting rid of the status quo.
For Millennials, this economy is all new. They have seen a robust job market throughout their entire coming of age. They have gone to the mall all their lives and seen “Help wanted. Help wanted. Help wanted.” A Millennial could quit a job at Abercrombie and Fitch on Thursday to take time off to go on a family vacation and go back to the same mall a week later and get a new job at the Gap.
Is it true that business officers are postponing retirement due to evaporating investment accounts?
Yes, I think so. Two years ago, we were predicting mass movements of Boomers. Many higher education institutions did a lot of hiring in the '60s and '70s, and many of the people they recruited are still there. They grew up with their institutions for two or three decades. When these thousands of Baby Boomers retire, we will see a sea change at institutions.
However, right now, everything has stopped, which has caused Gen Xers to feel really discouraged. They've been looking up at layers of capable, healthy, fit Baby Boomers who jog and take good care of themselves and thinking, “Are they ever going to get out of the way?”
How can colleges and universities address the resulting Gray Ceiling?
They can be more creative about policies, programs, and practices that help move older Traditionalists and Boomers toward retirement. The problem is that Boomers are often the bosses, so they invent policies and look at programs through their lenses. They may not consider instituting a career path that another generation would jump at.
For example, I know of one university that put in place a step-down program for Baby Boomers, in which they could move toward retirement by going to three-quarter time or half-time, or they could take a different job title but keep their same pay and benefits. This would open up a position for a younger person.
Unfortunately, none of the Boomers used it.
Baby Boomers are competitive. They immediately assume, “I would be less essential.” That's how Baby Boomers think. You ask someone from another generation, and he or she might say, “Wow. Three-quarter time. I could have my Fridays free and have a more robust personal life and still be part of the university. Great.”
Since the contraction in the economy has limited job mobility, is retention still an issue?
Absolutely. When the economy breaks loose, there will be pent-up demand for movement. You can't just hunker down in a bunker and brace yourself until this recession is over. You really need to keep looking at staff with high potential and saying, “How can I teach and coach and develop and mentor these people through this tough time so they come out ready to fly?”
How do you identify those you refer to as high potentials?
I caution people that a high potential can be any age—a Traditionalist who transferred from corporate America, a young Baby Boomer, a Millennial who was recently hired, or a Gen Xer ready to step up. You don't want to lose a high-value 52-year-old any more than you want to lose a high-potential 26-year-old.
One problem with working in a place that is based on tenure is the assumption that the longer you've been there, the more you know. We really have to shake that up. People can know a lot at any age. Because of fast-paced technology changes, this is really the first period in history where someone coming right out of college might know more than a staffer who has been around for 20 years.
The pyramid is being turned on its side, if not upside down. We have to be able to look at different-aged faces and different-colored faces and ask, “What do you know that our institution needs to make use of?”
Given current economic conditions, how can institutions reward those who perform particularly well?
It depends on what's important to each high performer. We're in a marketplace where maybe you can't give that next promotion or bump in pay, but you can give that next experience. That might mean sitting on a visible committee or working on an innovative project.
I know of one university that has created a rotation program for the high potentials in finance and administration that lets them learn the business in other departments. It's great for the university because high potentials develop into well-rounded future leaders; and it's great for the individuals, who get to learn new skill sets.
Another institution has put in place retention interviews. The business officer meets with promising staff and asks, “What keeps you here? What would you like to take on that would get you really excited about staying?”
How can institutions ensure the transfer of knowledge from senior leaders to up-and-coming leaders?
Simply hold supervisors accountable for sharing knowledge. Make knowledge transfer part of the annual review process. Remember: You do set the tone. You set the tone if you overlook older workers. You set the tone if you allow your experienced people to hoard their knowledge and not share it. Also, we need to celebrate knowledge sharing—recognize those who are willing to do it and reward their successes.
As Boomers move up and out, I do think other generations will be more open with information and knowledge. Gen Xers, who are collegial, like to share with each other. They see each other as allies. Millennials, who have worked on team projects all the way through middle school, high school, and college, have been raised to collaborate. They're very good at sitting down in a team and sorting out abilities. They'll just say, “I'm really, really good at this. I'm not so great at that. Can somebody else take that?”
At the same time, this is a new and scary economic reality, and we need to provide career coaching and encouragement to Millennials.
Yes, I know it may be uncomfortable to have a 26-year-old say, “Oh, I know all about that. Can I show you?” because as a Boomer, I want to be good at everything. I don't want to admit what I don't know. But once I get over it, the learning process is fun and enriching.
Millennial: Millennials Encounter Gloomy Job Market
Claire E. Boyd, 28, University of Georgia, Athens, predicts the Millennials will no longer play hopscotch with their jobs.
Millennials looking for their first jobs or career advancement face a dismal labor market, says Claire E. Boyd, senior procurement specialist, University of Georgia, Athens (UGA).
“Those of us already employed will see a decrease in the opportunities for advancement as a result of the university not filling vacant positions or people choosing to stay in their current jobs,” she says. “Nobody wants to be the new person right now. There is a perception that wherever you are is probably more stable than where you could go.”
Because of UGA's current hiring restrictions, fewer opportunities exist for recent college graduates. “It will be harder for people to get hired, which especially affects my generation,” she explains. “People coming out of college or looking for a second job that is more career-based will find it difficult to obtain a position here.”
If a UGA position does open up, Boyd predicts fierce competition from internal applicants as well as from highly qualified private sector employees who have lost their jobs and seek the security of higher education. “People in their early and mid-20s may be up against people with 5 to 10 years more experience,” she says. “That could complicate things for people in my generation who are trying to take their careers forward.”
Boyd sees a glimmer of opportunity for members of the Millennial generation who pitch in when their departments can't replace departing staff. “That job still has to be done,” she says, “which provides an opportunity for you to learn new skills, to shine, and to show you are a team player who is committed to the department.”
Boyd does worry about future funding. “Going forward, I am concerned about salaries,” she says. “If the budget crunch continues, how will that affect our ability to earn salaries that are keeping up with inflation and the cost of living?”
GEN XER: When Will This Economy Hit Bottom?
Gen Xers have been burned by the housing meltdown, says William D. Maki, 39, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota.
Just about the time Gen Xers decided to jump in, the hot housing market collapsed, leaving them with no equity and upside-down mortgages, says William D. Maki, vice president for finance and administration, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota.
“The members of my generation tend to live paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “We've had things in our early thirties that our parents didn't have until their fifties because they approached savings in a different way. We bought at the height of the housing market and tended to stretch ourselves. These factors make it really difficult if there is a job loss. Our options are tighter, based on the way we have lived our lives.”
He points out that the recession has also landed a knockout punch to Baby Boomers and Traditionalists, who see their investments shrinking and their retirements stretching further into the future. “I think the primary challenge with talent management is that the economy has delayed the plans of individuals who thought about retiring,” he says. “This trend, combined with shrinking budgets, has limited new opportunities and positions.”
Maki worries that when the economy turns around, these senior staffers could leave simultaneously, rather than in a naturally occurring staggered pattern. “The workforce at our university consists primarily of Baby Boomers,” he explains. “When times improve, you may see a mass exodus, which could put the organization at a disadvantage. Obviously, during these transitions, you lose a lot of history and talent. If you lose it all at once, it takes longer to recover.”
The economy's roller-coaster ride has made realistic planning difficult, if not impossible, Maki admits. “We just don't know when we will hit the bottom with the economy and how it will affect the state's budget and ultimately our university,” he says.
“This has been an uncomfortable period in trying to have a balanced, thoughtful budget for the next academic year. We're still waiting on so many variables. This is the most uncertain time I have seen in my 16-year career in higher education.”
BABY BOOMER: State Funding Falters as Student Population Soars
Robert C. Holmes, 57, Ivy Tech Community College, Indianapolis, doubts any institution has escaped the market's downturn.
Despite appropriations cutbacks, a freeze in repair and rehabilitation funds, and a double-digit jump in student enrollment, Ivy Tech Community College has avoided layoffs. For that, Robert C. Holmes, vice president of finance and treasurer, is thankful.
“There are large groups of people across generations who are concerned about whether they will continue to have a job,” he says. “Depending on your age and where you are in your life cycle, the impact of that is considerably different. What my daughter, who is two years out of college and in her first job, faces is a lot different than what I must deal with.”
The good news, Holmes says, is that the faltering economy has stimulated a new appreciation for the importance of a college education, primarily because people who have been laid off from positions want to update and polish their skills, as well as their resumes. As a result, he says, campuses are overflowing with multiple generations who offer many different sets of life experiences. He believes “that kind of interaction is a real positive in our classrooms.”
However, Holmes frets that state funding is not keeping pace with the influx of students. “We just haven't been able to hire the number of full-time faculty and other student services staff that we should,” he says. “Last fall's enrollment was up about 14.5 percent and the spring enrollment increase was even higher, and yet the state just hasn't been able to keep up with its support.”
Holmes feels certain that the economic conditions over the past six or eight months have touched business officers of all ages and from all types of institutions and geographic regions. “Fortunately, we at Ivy Tech operated fairly conservatively both with our investments and our debt management practices. We were not in a position where we lost funds or were hit with early calls on debt. We were pretty well positioned going in, but I don't think any institution has escaped without impact from the crisis.”
TRADITIONALIST: 'Knowledge Transfer Needs to Happen'
Thomas G. Sonnleitner, 68, University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh, admires the younger generations' enthusiasm.
To help adjust to state cuts of $7.7 million, the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh is tapping into a $2.5 million rainy-day fund that was built through incentive programs and other entrepreneurial activities. “We are not cutting jobs, but we may fill them more slowly,” says Thomas G. Sonnleitner, vice chancellor for administrative services.
Even without layoffs, the institution's employees fear the region's ability to rebound. “Many spouses of our employees are losing or have lost their jobs,” Sonnleitner points out. “Now the financial burden is on the person working here. It is difficult.”
He cites the example of a person employed on campus who has two teenagers in high school and whose spouse was recently laid off. “The family is adjusting to their new economic reality,” he says. “They, like many others in this situation, may not be able to afford to send their kids to college because they can't get all of the financial aid they need. The emphasis we're making is to provide scholarships and emergency loan funds to these families. It's up to us as university leaders to provide financial access to our institution.”
With members of the Baby Boom and Traditionalist generations delaying retirement, Sonnleitner believes it is more important than ever to delegate responsibility and share knowledge. “I firmly believe the foundation of the university is the growth from within,” he says. “We try to ensure that all of our supervisors are managing and not doing. We focus on delegating responsibility and teaching people how to do things and allowing them to make mistakes.
“Our stance is that everybody's a leader,” he continues. “You may be a custodian but you still must think of yourself as a leader in what you do. Knowledge transfer needs to happen-regardless of the economic situation. We're trying to cross-train so when people do step out we can backfill and not lose a step. That's really important.”
Although he hasn't noticed a big difference in the work ethic of the generations, he does believe that Millennials and Gen Xers tend to show more enthusiasm for new initiatives, such as sustainability. “That's a benefit. We're all victims, if you will, of our experiences. We might think, 'We tried that before. It didn't work.' Sometimes younger folks can help us go back down that road and succeed.”
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.