August 28, 2014
The U.S. population is aging, as is the workforce. Employers of all sorts are doing what they can, or should be doing what they can, to prepare for increasing rates of retirement. If you're lucky enough to have (1) a pool of experienced workers, (2) a company culture that encourages the sharing of the tribal knowledge, and (3) an enthusiastic group of new recruits, you're just missing one element that can help to make the transition go smoothly.The U.S. population is aging, as is the workforce. Employers of all sorts are doing what they can, or should be doing what they can, to prepare for increasing rates of retirement. Baby boomer retirements started in 2010 when people on the leading edge of that group, born in 1945, reached age 65. The pace of retirements will probably peak somewhere around 2022, which is 65 years after the peak of the baby boom (4.3 million births in 1957).
This will affect all industries, but it won’t affect all of them equally. It’s fair to say that manufacturing will be squeezed more than many industries. Some workers leave manufacturing voluntarily, looking for relief from long days of physical labor, while others are forced to look for work elsewhere as foreign competition encroaches and ever-more-capable machines reduce the labor needed to manufacture durable goods. As those workers leave, so does the on-the-job experience they accumulated over the decades.
Who will replace them? Believe it or not, the U.S. has plenty of youngsters who are working age. After peaking in 1957, the number of births in the U.S. dropped to 3.1 million in 1973, and then rebounded to 4.0 million in 1994. That group is now 20 years old. Of course this doesn’t mean that they’re prepared to enter the workforce and take up manufacturing jobs. The lure of white-collar jobs has drawn an ever-increasing number of people to universities, so the 1-in-10 ratio of people who had completed a bachelor degree in 1957 is closer to 1-in-3 these days. The corresponding reduction in interest in vocational programs and technical careers has created a vicious cycle.
Employers lucky enough to find a trained job candidate need to remember that the training might have been somewhat basic. A case in point came up at my previous job, when I worked for a manufacturer of conduit benders. A customer complained once that the least experienced electricians on the job site could run wire just fine, but they weren’t up to par on bending conduit. “They throw away more than they install,” he said. I wanted to ask who provided the training, but I kept my tongue and my job.
Even if you have an experienced workforce rich in tribal knowledge and trained whippersnappers ready and willing to soak up some lessons, you still might have a pitfall that should be avoided. All might go smoothly on the shop floor, but intergenerational differences are sure to crop up in the lunch room or near the water cooler. A passing mention of Francis Gary Powers, the Bay of Pigs, or Sirhan Sirhan will likely get nothing more than a blank look. The silverback who made the passing comment might be a little startled to have to explain that a U2 was a spy plane long before it was an Irish rock band; that the U.S. pursued various strategic initiatives in Cuba long before it started detaining prisoners at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base; and that John Kennedy wasn’t the only member of that family killed by a nut with a gun.
It’s not the youngster’s fault, of course. The mandatory U.S. history course in high school covers the big events, and it takes a while to accumulate enough bits and pieces to be culturally literate. In addition, the world is a very different place from the way it was in the 1960s. This might be hard to believe, but a 20-year-old today has no recollection of a world without the Internet, cell phones, or domestic terrorism. Forget Khrushchev smacking his shoe on the desk, Gunsmoke, and Ralph Nader working over every supposed flaw in the design of the Corvair. None of that means anything to a generation brought up in the era of Putin, YouTube, and cars equipped with safety everything. This doesn’t mean that 50-somethings are out of touch, and it doesn’t mean that 20-somethings are stupid. It means that this is an opportunity to build a bridge to span the divide.
A member of the staff of Beloit College (Beloit, Wis.) noticed that this gap had the potential to derail conversations (and lectures) and created a varied list—products, events, cultural touchstones, government programs, and so on—that shaped the world view of the incoming freshmen in 1997. Two Beloit College professors have updated the list every year since then, and it has become a standard reading assignment (for the professors) at many universities throughout the U.S.
A little effort, and a little patience, should go a long way in preventing the generation gap from dividing your workforce the way the Berlin Wall divided Berlin.