The Next 10 Years a Leadership Change will Occur

Have you ever had one of those moments where you are leaned over a bowl of cereal with a spoon in one hand and your coffee in the other and time is standing still? The moment is frozen because you remembered why you were doing something in the first place. I recently had that moment with this blog. I didn’t intend on it to be a daily account of the machinations of the job market. The global meltdown helped foster that view of mine, but really it was a lack of creativity.

Seven years ago a guy by the name of Paul Kaihla wrote an article in Business 2.0, a defunct business magazine, called The Coming Job Boom . It was a dark time for technology employment as the tech bubble had collapsed two years earlier. But the premise of the article is sound: Baby Boomers are getting old.

Here we are in 2010 coming off a severe economic reckoning. 18 months ago retirement portfolios were wrecked by the decline in the markets. They’ve rebounded, but scars remain. What does this mean to the business community and industry in general? The answer is that the next ten years will determine the fate of the US. Wow that’s a hyperbolic statement, but hear me out.

The demographics of the Baby Boomers are unmistakable. They are the largest group of people this country has ever experienced, both from a total count and as a percentage of the population. They also were the benefactors of two major US innovations: a free market method to war enablement and the public education system. Both are taken for granted now, but each one propelled the US during the middle portion of the 1900s. Because of this, the Baby Boomers have led this country in one way or another since the mid 1960s. That’s fifty years of leadership experience and problem solving set to retire. The graph below shows a generalization of the different populations segments.

As depicted, the crest of the Baby Boomers begins in 1951 – 60 years ago. For the next ten years, that crest is going to, in mass, think about things that aren’t work. Things like grand kids, travel, cooking, and golf. As I hinted before, I think the economic situation has delayed the great exit for a few years. And many older workers were laid off as well, so a job to bridge to retirement, whenever that is, is sought by many. However, the allure of retirement is a strong pull and fluctuations in the past haven’t disrupted it, so we shall see. If the numbers hold, the three groupings should look like this, resulting in about 14 million boomers retired by 2020.

So the question is, who will replace the Baby Boomers in business and industry? The answer is multifaceted. First is the sheer volume of people. Gen X and Gen Y aren’t big enough and they don’t have an educational advantage. The US is still the greatest innovator on the planet, so creativity and problem solving are assets. But it begs the question as to how these skills are distributed across the generations. I’m fairly optimistic about this one, but it could very well be concentrated in the senior bracket.

Here is a picture showing the proportion of the population by age grouping over the next 10 years. Some time in 2013-2014 the balance between Gen X and the Boomers will tip.

What I see happening is a combination of several factors. Gen X is already at an age of prime leadership responsibility, but many are blocked by the boomers preventing valuable learning opportunities. This can, and I think has, create resentment and a lack of trust by the two populations. Another aspect about Gen X is that they are very much technologically savvy and yet they are weighed down by a legacy culture, which was implemented by the Boomers. Things like Thursday night comedy on TV and face to face meetings. Gen Y is not burdened by these norms and is headed in another direction altogether. The Baby Boomers have recognized this and have partnered with Gen Y in a kind of mentor style relationship. This is accelerating the learning curve for those in that demographic and plucking a few more lead roles from Gen X. So although this looks like doom and gloom for Gen X, I can’t completely buy that Gen Y will leap frog them. So the chart will probably look like this:

The change is a bit subtle, but instead of Gen X completely filling the vacancies, I see it being the vast majority with the Boomers and Gen Y supplementing them. The Baby Boomers will redefine flexible work, especially those in the upper middle class, and work until 70. Gen Y will see the weaknesses in Gen X and go their own way. This means further partnering with India, Brazil, and especially China.

It also means that talent will very much be at a premium. And education is still a separator, but in a negative way, if you don’t have it, you are out. Now is the time to identify the individuals in the different groupings who work well together and foster some sort of cluster which pushes each person to be creative and allows for learning to occur.

I hope one day this week, you’ll have a cereal moment and think about your current job and how it help you over the next pivotal 10 years.


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