Leadership in the aging U.S. work force

  • Published
  • By Dr. Charmaine M. Jamerson
  • 72nd Air Base Wing
The aging of the U.S. work force is much like a tornado...we know it's coming, some type of havoc is probable, but until it hits the amount of damage can only be estimated. While a tornado will likely wreak havoc, the aging work force won't necessarily cause damage. The aging of the work force, however, increases the probability of a younger employee supervising and leading older employees. The quality of interaction will be dependent on the mindset of all employees. Of all the major commands, AFMC employs the highest number of civilians, at 55,000. AETC is next with approximately 14,500 civilians. With this high number of employees, it becomes imperative for young leaders to work toward lessening negative conflict while promoting teamwork and a productive environment.

Conflict is highly probable in any type of situation where people interact, and generational conflict is well-documented in the literature. Not all scholars, practitioners, or employees subscribe to this view, and these are the people who say that the employee's mindset and personality play a significant role in workplace interactions and ultimately productivity in the workplace. Projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that by 2014 the number of employees in the 45 to 54-age cohort will increase by only 5 percent. The number of employees in the 55 to 64-age cohort is estimated to grow by 40 percent, while the number of employees 65 years and older will grow by over 70 percent. In contrast, the entire U.S. labor force will increase by only 10 percent by 2014. Increased longevity, economic need, Social Security and pension benefit policy changes have been listed as some of the reasons older people are remaining in the work force. However, there are those who stay because they know they still possess the skills and abilities to contribute to the organization, and they enjoy their jobs.

Results of a recent study conducted by the author indicated that leadership requirements of older employees might not be that much different than those of employees of any age group. One main difference, however, is that older employees tend to have the wisdom and practitioner experience gained from longevity in the workplace. In the U.S., the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946-1964) makes up a significant portion of the work force and these employees are in the age group eligible to retire. The considerable number of employees from this age cohort has had a defining impact on the work force and when these individuals leave they will take their tacit knowledge and capabilities with them. While data indicated that 80 percent of the individuals in the Baby Boomer generation of employees might remain in the work force, other data indicated that 64 million Baby Boomers will be eligible for retirement by 2010.

With U.S. Census data and researchers predicting that a smaller number of employees will be available to replace those employees who retire, leaders should make every effort to retain the older employees who want to remain in the work force. Retaining older employees might also lessen expenses incurred in recruiting and training younger employees. However, a significant influence on employees of any age remaining in an organization is the leader's behavior and employees' perceptions of their leaders.
Essential information for leaders who want to create a strategy to lead effectively and retain older employees' skills and abilities falls in five categories:

Workplace wisdom and academic education
Learning from experience is a distinguishing mark of the leaders who seeks to improve processes and people. The view exists that academic experience without practical knowledge does not provide the comprehensive skills necessary to lead in an aging work force. However, leaders can use the experiences of older employees to challenge the mindset that refutes the need for change and innovation. Aging does not necessarily diminish older employees' abilities, and attitude toward change and positive feedback are behaviors that can that influence the quality of work. The leader who continuously acknowledges the efforts of older employees sends the message that the employee is valuable to the organization.

Understanding older employees and their actions
The camaraderie that results from knowing employees can be an encouragement in the organization. Actively listening to older employees might result in a connection that will motivate older employees to continue to perform at their best. Knowing the older employee's mindset towards job satisfaction and motivation can help with creating the team-centered environment that can encourage innovation. Increase in job confidence can occur when older employees receive leadership support for professional developmental activities. Leaders who encourage a trusting environment by collaborating with other employees also foster transparency. Transparency in leadership action plays a crucial role in older employees' perceptions of the leader's commitment to the growth of the organization.

Interaction and respecting the leadership role
Leaders inspire other employees to think unselfishly. The leader has to gain the respect of employees. For older employees to continue to respect the leader and the leader's ideas the older employee has to remain inspired. When interacting with various employees the leader has to adapt to varied situations and maintain clear communication. When the leader's expectations or support is deficient, the older employee sees no structure and loses confidence in leaders. Sustainment of job passion can occur when the leader shows care for the older employee to cultivate the organizational connection.

Having credibility, clear values, and setting the example
The leader with clear values models the behavior expected from employees. Building a relationship with employees requires leaders to place themselves purposely in areas where employees can see and interact with the leader. To engage employees, the leader has to be believable in demonstrating purpose and vision since the leader influences the level of productivity and the quality of work accomplished. The quality of the relationship built with the older employee will help the leader in areas such as communicating goals and objectives, knowing when to modify jobs, providing autonomy, or in assessing work force strengths or capabilities.

In summary, Warren Bennis (leadership guru) suggested that the leader who is open-minded, sets the example by aligning words and actions to achieve goals, and cares for employees will have the support of employees. The leader has to ensure that he or she is setting the example for the older employees to have confidence in and support their leader. Employees will eagerly continue to work in the environment where leaders acknowledge employees' efforts, value employees' skills and abilities, request feedback from employees, and objectively accept feedback -- behaviors that will encourage any employee, young or old.

(Editor's note: Dr. Jamerson is also a marathoner who recently completed the Oklahoma City Memorial marathon and she is the spouse of Col. Allen Jamerson, 72nd Air Base Wing commander).