Betting on the Boomers

by rthieme on March 11, 2005

We’re living longer and longer, but we still treat boomers as if they’re busted.

It takes society a while to catch up with itself. One thing changes – and it might be a really big thing – but institutions with deeply ingrained habits don’t see that they’re out of step … until the gap widens and someone feels the pain.

Life expectancy is increasing dramatically. The average lifespan in America went from 47 in 1900 to 78 in 2000. The population segment with the largest percentage increase year by year is people over one hundred.

And the rate of change itself is accelerating. It is not unreasonable to anticipate life spans of 150 years or more as anti-aging medicines and genetic and biochemical enhancements allow people to live functional lives for many decades more than they do now.

Yet society still expects us to retire in our sixties. Lip service may be given to boomers wanting adventuresome retirements but they’re still expected to retire at an age that no longer makes sense.

At the same time, major industries – computer science, aerospace, nuclear science, engineering – are sounding the alarm because retiring veterans are not being replaced by younger people. A fifty-something veteran at Los Alamos National Laboratory told me recently that without the excitement of setting off explosions (they have to use simulations to evaluate weapons that can not be tested under current treaties), significant expertise in nuclear weapon development will soon be lost.

During a speech in Madison recently at the UW E-Business Consortium, I heard the same anxiety expressed about computer scientists. Young people, prolonging adolescence well into their twenties, are not showing up with the requisite skills.

I asked the speaker if training – a college degree, a certificate course, on-line learning – was being offered to boomers (I am a bit ahead of the demographic, having been born in 1944).

“At 62,” I said, “I’m still healthy and viable. I speak to government and corporate leaders all over the world. My last physical went great. I might have another ten, twenty, even thirty years of productive life ahead, and I want to contribute, I want to be challenged, I want to stay engaged with all pistons firing.

“Is anything being done to facilitate the re-training of people like me – up to and including entire degree programs in areas we have not previously mastered – because the skills and maturity we bring to our work, to say nothing of the work ethic, our love of the work itself when it’s what we want to be doing, make us so viable?”

He shook his head.

“Many Gen Ys and Echo Boomers,” I said, “have faster trigger fingers and can multi-task a lot better. But wisdom and maturity and insight still have value, don’t they? The ability to see patterns, know which ones matter, the judgment and discernment to infer the right things – these attributes enhance, rather than replace, the skills of the younger bunch, don’t they?”

Again, he shook his head. “I agree, but nothing is being done about it.”

Luckily our entrepreneurial skills enable us to contribute in ways that enable us to fly solo or in small formations. Organizations with habits and practices based on the past just don’t have us on the radar. Radar scans the skies of the future, not the mists of the past. Yet it’s future-pull that will tug the shapes of organizational practice into new configurations. It’s the future that will deliver these possibilities and the leaders that align themselves with the future.

Retraining our brains to see these patterns is one example of what I’m talking about. Those with a smaller data-base, that is, the youthful and inexperienced, can’t always do it. The ways new technologies have framed their brains and behaviors are implicit and unconscious. They know how to do some terrific things but they don’t always know that they know. That’s a higher order of insight and it comes with experience and serious reflection. That kind of insight has value.

I cannot pretend that this plea is not self-interested. I want to keep going … and going … and going … until I am all used up. But I also want leaders with foresight to see that resources are all around them – they just don’t look like what they expect of a “new hire.”

And I want them to see it soon.

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