Wednesday, January 14, 2009


When a Workplace Skips a Generation

There's a fairly wide, if shallow, literature out there on different generations in the workplace. It's often fun to read, if of limited usefulness. This week I finally realized what's missing.

What are the effects when a workplace skips a generation?

In the community college world, this seems distressingly common. In discussion with a contact at another cc this week, where the same phenomenon holds, I realized that the reasons for the gap are more complicated than I had initially thought.

At its core, of course, is the huge burst of hiring in the late sixties and early seventies, followed by decades of severely restricted hiring. Combine that with a tenure system, salaries based on seniority, pension benefits based on seniority, and a relative lack of alternatives for many employees after a given number of years, and you get serious stasis.

Perversely, the explosion of antidiscrimination law and litigation made it even worse. In order to avoid litigation, many public (and presumably some private) institutions started hiring according to pretty rigid 'point' systems. Applicants get so many points for degree level, years of experience, and the like, with interviews going to the top point-getters. When experience is valued linearly – when the marginal point value between years fifteen and twenty is the same as the marginal point value between years zero and five – this amounts to a perfectly legal form of reverse age discrimination. My contact mentioned that her college actually did some hiring about ten years ago, but nearly everybody hired at that point was in their late forties or higher. They scored the most points.

(My proposal for valuing experience: value the first few years quite a bit, then apply the law of diminishing returns. This is consistent with peer-reviewed studies of the effects of experience on effectiveness.)

In the last three years – ending quite abruptly this Fall – there was a hiring boomlet, with a cohort evenly divided between the fiftysomethings and the twentysomethings. Now with the latest freeze, I don't expect another cohort to come in for several years at least.

So on both campuses, there's a huge cohort of fifty-and-up, and a small cohort in its twenties. The thirty- and forty-somethings are rare birds. Thirty- and forty-somethings with children are even rarer.

I've heard of similar patterns happening in certain boom-and-bust industries, like energy. When hiring happens in bursts, with long troughs in between, it's easy for a generation to get skipped.

The effects strike me as generally negative. (And that's without even addressing the issue of fairness to the cohort for whom opportunities were few and far between.)

For one, it wreaks havoc with any serious effort at succession planning. When everybody in a department is counting days until retirement, except the one new 26 year old hire who is focused solely on getting tenure, it's easy to see a leadership crisis in the offing. Even hiring from the outside is tough when the generation skipped was skipped by an entire industry.

It also seems to have negative effects on employee retention. Among my friends from high school, college, and grad school who went on to get doctorates – we're into double digits here – I can only think of two who are still full-time professors. One is looking into administration, and the other is looking actively for an industry job. (Several moved into industry, a few into administration, and the rest just sort of fell off the planet.) At my cc, the retention rate for the few folks of my generation is conspicuously lower than for the group before it and the group after it. The leadership of the campus has noticed it, but doesn't seem to have any serious idea what to do about it. And now that the conversation has shifted from 'hires' to 'layoffs,' this isn't exactly a burning issue. If anything, this group will be among the first to get laid off, sacrificed yet again to the bitch goddess of seniority.

The lack of a peer group makes that sense of 'belonging' much harder to sustain, especially when the huge and immovable group above you has so much history. (I'm told to expect the pace of retirements to slow even more, now that the returns on retirement accounts have turned negative. Swell.) I've even become a sort of unofficial translator for some of my colleagues, making the utterances of two groups forty years apart from each other mutually intelligible. (True example: I had to explain at a recent meeting that current 19 year olds regard email as obsolete. That elicited audible groans from some of the senior folk, who still insist on receiving anything official as hardcopy.) I have literally been stopped in the hallway by senior faculty, asking me to translate something a student said. Nobody in their departments is young enough to do it, so it goes to me by default. Being the Ambassador from Mars doesn't do much to solidify that sense of identification.

Hiring to fill in the gaps is explicitly illegal, given the assumptions embedded in the age discrimination laws. That doesn't help, either.

Wise and worldly readers in similar demographic blind spots – have you found ways of dealing with this? Has your college? I know this isn't a crisis, yet, but I can see one coming down the pike. And the loneliness can get a little wearing.

Funny you should mention the energy industry, because that's exactly what I was thinking as I was reading along. I started out working for an oilfield service company and the phenomenon you describe was happening there. The employees had either been around 20+ years or less than 2 years because everyone in the middle had been laid off. It was a big problem in a world where job movement was EASY so I can't imagine a solution for an industry where job movement is all but impossible.

Maybe a closer analogy to faculty would be petrochemical engineers and geologists, with their long lead time in training. Even there, geologists who were pushed out could come back when those skills were in enough demand to drive up the price. But where to English professors go where there are no teaching jobs and can colleges and universities up the price enough to lure them back?

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
So that's why the Xers hate the boomers...

Anyway, how do you develop mad intergenerational communicational skillz?
Cause whether people realize it explicitly or not, that looks like a valuble skill in these kinds of environments.
No, you're not ageist. Why not befriend a boomer and see their generational desires firsthand?
Hmmm, DD. The thing I found surprising in your account was that were 50-something hires in the bubble of the last couple of years. I've observed in liberal arts colleges that the faculty is layered. The oldest layer (often now post 65) is white and male. Then there are no 50-something people. The 30- and 40-somethings are the identity-politics people...sometimes the faculty person looks like the identity whose role they champion (women, blacks, ex-colonials, working class, etc.); sometimes not. A couple of years ago I had a 50- something English prof tell me that for years and years he had taught the crumbs in his department. Suddenly the aging white males retired, and now he's teaching Shakespeare and other canonical courses because there is no one else in the department qualified. In my field, many of the 20-somethings hired in the last couple of years had research areas (albeit with an up-to-date slant) where multiple generations of previous dissertators had gone unhired. In effect, the senior scholar finally retired, and his last student got his (sic) job...not literally his job, but his place in the hierarchy of specialization. Little notice that said senior scholar was paid to produce junior scholars for 30 or 40 years who were lucky to get the crumbs left for the now-50-something English prof mentioned above.

In the meantime, education has become a place to churn out credentialed people...not a place for the life of the mind. The system sustained itself in the past few years, so that grads of the most sought-after schools could go into finance. Well those jobs are now gone for a long time.

DD's community college appears to me to have the most viable future in the current situation, training for medical and computer and even mechanical tech professions....just as state budgets are in crisis.
No answers or ideas, but plenty of sympathy. The first few years in my old CC job, I was 10 years younger than anyone else in my dept, and that person 10 years older than me? She was 10 years younger than anybody else BUT me. Actually, in the whole time I was there, I had one colleague who was within 5 years of my age.

Most of the people I worked with had kids my age, and so a lot of our actual student population was, yes, 2 generations remote, especially as our students got younger & younger.

Hated it. Hated hated hated it. And it made me permanently bitter about generational anything. (Love that in my current (non-academic!) job I work with people of a variety of ages, lengths of time at the workplace, etc.)

So yeah, no answers, but I appreciate the position you're in, especially being up in the administration!
One thing I find odd is that my experience is that being around students all the time keeps me at least vaguely aware of what their generation is up to. So I knew about Guitar Hero even before I saw it on South Park, for instance. It isn't that hard to listen to students and see what is going on. They will tell you things their parents don't know.

I've been fascinated by the switch from mail to e-mail to phone to text and back to phone, but who would buy a car based on a document that got texted to your phone claiming to be a car title? (OK, the same people who believed Bernie Madoff, but hopefully you get my point.)

The generational thing is odd. I was hired in at about 50, but all the other people my age had 20 years of experience teaching at our CC and are burning out.
As a 55 year-old interviewing for a full time position at a community college, I was asked at the second interview, "how long are YOU going to stay if we hire you?" How long? I wonder if that question were asked of the younger applicants?
When a workplace doesn't promote a generation, doesn't give raises to a generation, gives poor evaluations to a generation, and tries to get that generation to "retire" early - a new topic for discussion. You will never be a different race or ethnicity, but you will be old and if you're ageist now, you will become the victim of your own prejudice. One has to ask, why can't we all get along???
Nothing amazing to say other than my department members are 15-20 years older than me. I can't be taken seriously because I'm so much younger than everyone I work with--only people in admissions are my age. One job I applied for two years ago, I was passed over, for someone in their 60's. It's just maddening.
Emily, that question would only be asked at our college if we asked the same one of everyone.

Possible answers could range from "longer that some young hot-shot who doesn't really want to teach" to "until the day you will be begging me not to retire" ... to "until enrollments drop when the boomer echo ends".

Having watched the stresses on a university when the boom ended and a new generation wanted to study business instead of social work, I can see why a college might prefer hiring someone who is unlikely to work more than 10 or 15 years.
Rented Life, that's so good to hear - that you were passed over for someone 60! Perhaps, you weren't passed over for someone SIXTY, but passed over for someone with more experience. Why is it so okay to be ageist, but not racist, not sexist, not homophobic, etc., etc.
Youknowwho -- I think she was going from the other direction; she fears she was passed over because of her young age, not because of any factors surrounding experience.

Let's be honest; after five year or so, one has most of the pedagogical experience one needs to be a fully effective teacher. Everything after that is little tweaks to a fundamentally solid body of skills.
Allied Health is like this too - a lot of 50+ folks and a lot of mid-20's people. The year I was licensed, only 70 people were licensed along with me (out of 40 million people in my state, that's not a lot). We have annoying workshops about generational differences which, at their worst, boil down to telling 50 year olds that even though their slacker Gen Y co-workers seem to not be contributors in they way the Baby Boomers were, they really are just different and we should all try to get along. I have been described in so many seminars as drifting and uncommitted it's unreal. Boomers are of course the passionate people who started movements to change the world - to which I reply, "Obama!"

The thing I really want to know is whether or not these differences are generational or if they reflect being in different life stages. Did moms really not need time off for maternity leave 30 years ago? Was there such good child care and support for people that no one needed to call in sick at the last minute to care for a family member? Did those folks who grumble about new people not working the night shift really do it as a single parent with two kids at home and no family support? Most older folks in the workforce had a much more supportive community / family situation than current 20-30 year olds. I wish we could have seminars that talk about that.
A little late to the comment party but here are a few comments to the commentors...

I was asked how long I planned to stay in my interview. My position had suffered from high turn around and they basically just wanted me to say I would stick around for a couple of years (versus 1 year). Beyond that, I picked up no age concerns. I asked my chair about the question almost a year later in my first evaluation.

I am an early thirty something and all but one other faculty member is over fifty in my division. I've never been bothered by it. Actually, I appreciate the "real-life" advice they supply. I have never felt that my position or opinion has ever been diminished owing to my age. This may be because I have a Ph.D. versus a Master's (highest held by almost all other faculty) or because it is a CC. Either way, all the other faculty show me respect regardless of their age.

My word verification is "binholi". Sounds like something from Beavis and Butthead.
Darn it - didn't finish my thought in the last comment...

I asked about the interview question during the evaluation and found out that it was exactly what I expected. They honestly just needed me to say that I wasn't going to run away after a semester or a year.
So that must be why at the faculty Christmas party I realized out of about 500 people I was about the youngest person in the room!

I think there's also a link between increasing numbers of adjuncts and this age gap. Maybe older people are just less willing to work for low pay and no benefits.
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