Future Shock: How to prepare for a “tsunami-sized” shift in the workplace
What’s next at work?
“My wife handed me a cartoon this morning,” Morley Winograd, the co-author of Millennial Makeover, says. “In it, the mother says to a little boy, ‘No, you can’t have 10 cookies.’ And the little child says, ‘OK. So what number can we both be happy with?’ He chuckles. “That’s a great summation of millennial attitudes.”
Experts have long told us that the workplace of the future will be defined by the baby boomers retiring and millennials replacing them. Some 40 per cent of Canadian workers are boomers. At the same time a recent study by the BPW Foundation estimates that by 2025, a staggering 75 per cent of the world’s workforce will be millennials.
Winograd and other demographers argue the future workplace will be shaped by the cocktail created as they mix. How should employers prepare?
The three generational cohorts working today – boomers, gen-Xers and millennials – experienced different upbringings, and thus have different attitudes toward “success,” Winograd explains. Boomers see the world as win-lose, gen-Xers see themselves as individuals and millennials see the workplace as a group that, ideally, wins together. “It creates a lot of tension, as people think of desirable outcomes and actual outcomes differently,” Winograd says. “Since work is designed to achieve outcomes, bosses who don’t understand the way the ultimate outcome will be perceived by people not of their generation will become very frustrated with the people they’re working with.”
SOLUTION: Learn to speak all generational tongues
“Every seven seconds, another [baby] boomer turns 65,” says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, in Ottawa. Canada’s 9.6 million boomers make up three out of every 10 people in the country, and thus dominate the workforce. Yet while they’re reaching retirement age, they’re not retiring. “Most boomers, given the choice, and given the current economic situation, are remaining in the paid labour force beyond 65 in some capacity,” Spinks says.
As such, workplaces will need to accommodate this much-needed source of skilled labour through phased retirement policies. Many boomers, Spinks says, want to retire gradually, shifting to 60 per cent time, then 40 per cent, and then perhaps, after several years, consulting.
SOLUTION: Get your phased-retirement policy in place
Spinks says 68 per cent of adult caregivers are also workers. As Canada’s population ages, the percentage of workers caring for parents in some capacity will increase. But it gets more complicated: Canadians are having children far later in life than they used to. The 2011 census, for example, shows that there are more first-time mothers older than 40 than ever before.
The intersection of these trends is called the “sandwich generation,” where adults are raising young children while also caring for parents. Spinks says few workplaces are even contemplating how to prepare for what this means for their workers, who will need time off from work to provide this care. Newly completed research by the Vanier Institute and the University of Alberta shows that most employers think the flexibility they have for leave and time off for young parents can be applied to people caring for an aging or dying relative, Spinks says. “It can’t,” she says. “There’s no way.”
The reason, she explains, is that eldercare is unpredictable. Babies follow fairly predictable developmental pathways. Someone who’s aging, ill or dying does not. “We can see the tsunami coming to the shore and everybody’s still on the beach,” Spinks says of the situation. To deal with it, companies must customize work expectations around the needs of employees, rather than see them forced to quit (as is still too often the case today) if they have to care for parents. “They may need to come in late today but have regular hours tomorrow,” Spinks says. “They may need to take off time next week because mom’s being discharged from hospital, but they only need a week.”
SOLUTION: Customize work around the realities of workers
Workplace democracy Decisions in a corporate model once came from on high. But nothing could be further from that at the company voted the best to work at several times over: Google.
At Google, says Wendy Bairos, communications spokesperson for Google Canada, the company executives hold court with employees once a week. During this discussion, held live in California but broadcast worldwide to all Google offices, executives answer the 20 most asked questions of the week. Votes are taken on solutions. Responses are public. And from the many meetings, big workplace ideas are often adopted.
“Sometimes ideas can go viral, just like videos can,” Bairos says. These include adopting one person’s idea for Google to start a bus shuttle service to work to encourage sustainability.
“There’s this theme that great ideas can come from anywhere, so it really avoids that push-down approach,” she says. “What comes from that is really how flat the organization is. I think that’s why it feels very democratic.”
SOLUTION: Stop being a dictator