Gray Ceiling Darkens Job Hopes for Millennials

A combination of prolonged slow job creation and Baby Boomers who just won't quit work are threatening the orderly flow of employees from hire to retire. It has created what I call the gray ceiling.
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Generational gaps have existed for as long as there have been adults and children. But a combination of prolonged slow job creation and Baby Boomers who just won't quit work are threatening the orderly flow of employees from hire to retire. It has created what I call the gray ceiling.

What is a gray ceiling? Traditionally as one generation aged, they moved out to make room for the youngest generation moving in. That shift made way for the middle generation to move up to the top of the organizational chart. With older workers working longer, young workers can't move in and the next generation of leaders can't get promoted. That inability of younger generations to be promoted and move up the organizational chart is called the gray ceiling. Read more about the gray ceiling.

Part of the blame for this succession logjam is an unprecedented sociologic and demographic event. For the first time in history, four generations are working side-by-side. This scenario isn't just a brief passing of the torch moment either. For as long as Baby Boomers and their predecessors decide to keep working, the multi-generational workforce is here to stay. And even if the tides turn, a fifth generation will shortly be filling out job applications.

This generational crowding is causing some major conflict and miscommunication in the workplace.

That's because each generation has its own distinct set of values, shaped by their unique social conditions, political events, economic conditions, major crises and childhood experiences. Each generation also reacts to the generation before them, and this reaction becomes part of its own identity and defining characteristics. These differences can lead to major misunderstandings between coworkers raised in different eras.

A combination of these diverse attitudes, generational crowding, and sustained unemployment is starting to cause "generational fatigue," the mental exhaustion of having to keep up with constantly changing attitudes and lack of certainty is frustrating workers of all ages.

Authors Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas have their own unique view of this situation. They see the generation gap as being between what they call the "geeks" (the younger, "digital" generations) and the "geezers" (the older, "analog" generations). The analog world in which today's older generations grew up was primarily linear. It rewarded specialization and experience, followed a mechanical understanding of the world, and favored organizational hierarchy. The digital world of the younger generations is nonlinear; it favors a flat organizational structure and rewards the generalist with the beginner's mind. Rather than a mechanical view of the world, it favors a more fluid and changing "living systems" model. This is a major paradigm shift that increasingly divides different generations in the workplace.

Managing this conflict, and finding ways to value the unique contributions made by these four unique generations in the workforce, will be a challenge for all businesses in the future.

What impact do Baby Boomers working longer have on younger generations? A look at the most recent unemployment numbers by age group reveals another potential source of tension between generations. The national unemployment rate in June was 8.2 percent; the rate for 55 years and over was only 6.2 percent. In fact, seniors have the lowest unemployment rate among all age groups. Compare that relatively low rate to 23.7 percent for 16- to 19-year-olds, 13.7 for 20- to 24-year-olds, and 8.2 for 25- to 34-year-olds and what you have developing is a gray ceiling clogging up the succession pipeline.

Generational crowding cannot be avoided. It is simply the result of changing demographics. But every business must have a strategy and plan in effect to minimize generational fatigue. To get started I offer the following checklist to help assess the likelihood of generations fatigue now and in the future:

  1. What is the generational composition of your current workforce?

  • What will the composition be in five years?
  • Is there a difference in the composition of hourly vs. salaried positions?
  • Will your location affect your ability to recruit access multiple generations? (In other words, what is the demographic make-up of your region?)
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