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.