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Younger workers bump the gray ceiling

Greg LaRose
Dolan Media Newswires

One of every four U.S. workers will be 55 or older by 2016, as many of the 80 million baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — need or want to keep their jobs.

That’s good news to companies that want to retain seasoned talent, but not so good for the 46 million members of Generation X. Those 28- to 44-year-olds face what’s being called a gray ceiling, as employers will have to find ways to keep them moving up a company ladder where the higher rungs are occupied.

But it could also be bad for companies that depend on older employees to share their wisdom with younger co-workers, especially if those older workers feel their jobs are threatened.

c report published in September says 25 percent of the U.S. work force will be 55 or older within seven years.

Its surveys show that 63 percent of workers ages 50 to 61 will stay on the job past their planned retirement because of the recession, and the trend is expected to continue after the recession ends.

“Retirement is a place with fuzzy boundaries,” said Paul Taylor, who directed the “America’s Changing Workplace” report for Pew.

According to work force analysts, if the current economic pressures persist, older workers may be less willing to embrace their younger counterparts and provide the transfer of knowledge necessary for a business to bridge generations.

David Stillman, a business consultant and author of “When Generations Collide,” said older workers tend to view their knowledge as job security, so employers have to consider whether that knowledge is worth retaining and foster an environment that encourages sharing information deemed worthwhile.

“Organizations have to hold boomers accountable for the transfer of knowledge while letting them know they aren’t being shown out the door,” Stillman said.

Entergy Corp. pays particular attention to retirement trends to track what knowledge is being lost, said Mark Antoine, manager for strategic work force development. In highly specialized areas such as its nuclear power operations, the utility company uses a phased retirement program that allows retiring employees to work part time with full-time benefits so they can serve as instructors to their replacements.

Employers can retain these valued veterans if they are made to feel genuinely useful, said Neil Howe, president of LifeCourse Associates and an author who has written extensively on generational issues in America.

“Companies have to pitch it right,” Howe said. “They should be telling these older workers, ‘These younger kids need you. You’re their guru.’”

A more pressing concern for employers will be how they reshape their organizations to account for generational differences, Howe said. Baby boomers are comfortable with the hierarchy pyramid and recognition based on seniority, but Generation X feels more comfortable in a flat organization where they are awarded for what they contribute rather than on a basis of time served.

Generation X has matured as technology and globalization have driven changes — good and bad — in the economy, and that roller coaster ride of the past 30 years has prepared them for the current tumultuous economy, said Lisa Chamberlain , author of “Slackonomics,” which paints an economic portrait of Generation X.

“We don’t have to have a midlife crisis,” the 41-year-old said. “We’ve been having them all along.”

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