WHO WE HIRE: Demographic trends in the US are shifting dramatically: By 2029, there will be a 55% increase in people 65 and older in the workforce, while employees under- 25 workforce is will continue to decline, as will the number of employees between ages 45–64. This means companies will not be able to rely to the same degree on filling their talent pipelines with younger employees. We will need to think more broadly and creatively about how other age groups can help us fill our talent needs.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Professor Megan Gerhardt.
Megan W. Gerhardt, Ph.D. is a Professor of Management and Leadership at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University, where she also serves as Director of Leadership Development for the Farmer School and the Robert D. Johnson Co-Director of the Isaac & Oxley Center for Business Leadership. Megan has published widely on generational differences in the workplace and is author of the book Gentelligence: A Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce. Her Gentelligence work has been featured in Harvard Business Review, NBCNews.com, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, MarketWatch, The Houston Chronicle, and Inc. Magazine, among others. Dr. Gerhardt’s work (www.profgerhardt.com) focuses on leveraging differences to achieve impact and extraordinary levels of performance.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
We are amid the greatest management and leadership shift of our lifetime. Companies are trying to navigate challenges we’ve never encountered before while keeping the needs of all their employees balanced with the needs of their business objectives. Moving forward, the only companies that will survive will be the ones that are willing to reinvent what it means to work and let go of archaic practices. There’s not a one size fits all solution. We will see more companies investing into the science of understanding how to attract, develop, and retain their talent. The days of relying on “common sense” to manage our people are over. There’s an entire science to organizational psychology that will now need to be at the center of any successful company.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
My strongest piece of advice is to change the way they are framing the age diversity in their workforce. For too long, companies have been complacent about generational conflict and tension among their employees, viewing it as an unchangeable reality. This has resulted in ongoing stereotyping and age polarization, rather than meaningful opportunities for employees to work intergeneration ally to learn from one another. Age and generation are the missing links in the DEI puzzle. A recent 2020 Deloitte Insight Report found only SIX percent of organizations felt like their leaders were effectively managing their multigenerational workforce. That means there is a lot of opportunity being left on the table when it comes to leveraging this important kind of diversity of thought and experience. The challenges of the future of work won’t be solved by one generation. We will need the insights and expertise of all ages to future-proof our workplaces.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
There will be such variance in working arrangements moving forward. We are already seeing some companies insist on going back to the way things were prior to the pandemic, and others taking the opposite approach of throwing out the rules and creating new ones. The biggest difference will likely be that whatever arrangement an employee is looking for, they now realize they can probably find it somewhere, even if it’s not at their current company. That’s part of what has fueled the Great Resignation. Employees had time to clarify their core values and priorities for their careers (and their lives). Many people have reconsidered what they thought they had to sacrifice to have a strong career. They are watching closely to see whether their employers are acting in ways that align with what matters most to them as employees. For example, if a company says they value work/family balance but refuse to allow remote work for jobs that don’t necessarily have to involve face time, this will signal inauthenticity, and employees will leave. Employees aren’t willing to accept outdated practices that they don’t see as necessary anymore.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
See above! Interestingly, we were just finishing up the manuscript for our Gentelligence book when the pandemic hit in 2020. We had an entire chapter on people strategies and had noted that only 15% of companies regularly allowed working from home, which we thought would need to change to fit the way younger generations wanted to work in the future. Little did we know we would all change the way we wanted to work in the future. We had to redo that entire chapter before it went to press, that is how quickly things changed! I’ve been asked a lot how different generations responded to working from home, and it’s a great example of the danger of relying on generational assumptions and stereotypes (and a great opportunity to bring in Gentelligence instead!). Given the interest of Gen Z and Millennials to have more flexibility in their work location and schedule prior to the pandemic, we assumed those generations would adjust best to remote work, while older generations would struggle due to all the technology demands. However, data has shown that Gen Z had the hardest time working remotely, followed by Millennials, then Gen X, then the Baby Boomers.
If we dig into the reasons underlying this pattern, we realize that Gen Z and Millennials are in those early to mid-stages of their career where the office is very helpful for networking, establishing their professional identity, and all of those informal interactions that help differentiate yourself in the workplace. Having those cut off entirely led to isolation and low job satisfaction. For some of our youngest workers, they had never stepped foot in their actual workplace or met their co-workers in person, which made it hard to feel committed and a part of their organizations. Older generations tend to have established networks and ways of doing things in place, so once they got up to speed on the needed technology, they had an easier time with remote work than younger generations. In fact, many reported remote work helped them balance caring for children and parents, and now may be unwilling to give that up.
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
We’ve known for a very long time in the field of organizational psychology that when it comes to human behavior at work, there is no one size fits all approach that is going to work. We need to normalize flexibility and let go of workplace practices that were invented for an entirely different era and purpose of work. Many of the management practices we are used to were developed to support goals of standardization: factory work and assembly lines. They were designed to increase efficiency and ignore difference. Our current era of work defines success in an entirely different way: we are seeking new ideas, innovative solutions, and unique approaches, and we need to manage and lead people accordingly. Going beyond tolerating difference to embracing it and building up work cultures that celebrate the different strengths and experiences people bring to the table. When we are all focused on the same shared mission, we can more easily appreciate how important it is to work with others who may bring different talents, experiences, or perspectives to the table to help get us there.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
We have the opportunity to recreate work. That is huge. I have always looked at effective leadership as being able to reframe what others see as a threat as an opportunity instead. What if we looked at work as something that energized us, because it allowed us to contribute our unique skills to companies we care about (and that we believe care about us)? What if “work” could fit more easily into our lives, rather than being something we felt always competes?
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
When we returned to teaching during the pandemic, I made a new class policy: be human first. This meant that there were going to be times when my class work was not going to be the most important priority for them, and I trusted them to decide where they needed to invest their time to stay both physically and mentally healthy. I told them I trusted they understood our shared goal and that they would commit to helping reach it, and that they wouldn’t take advantage of the flexibility. No one did. That’s my advice: work is something we do, not something we are. Workplaces have people who belong to them, and those people have wide ranging needs and commitments. Making people choose between their life and their work is a losing proposition for everyone. Creating work arrangements and workplace cultures where we trust our employees to do what is best is how we reinvent work.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
All of those things are simply symptoms of something much deeper. So, the important question is what is the root cause of all the resignation, reconfiguration, and re-evaluation? The answer is a failure to understand the needs of people at work. I teach organizational behavior. There’s an entire field of social science devoted to understanding how to effectively manage and lead people at work by understanding their needs and motivations, and over 75 years of research on how to manage people well. Yet in many companies, these things are an afterthought. I’ve had so many people ask “why would anyone need to major in THAT?”, only because they are used to the management of people being delegated to someone with no background or understanding of the science of people at work. If Ted from Accounting seems “good with people”, we promote him to some high-level position in HR, or if Shelly from the Marketing Department is enjoyable to work with, she suddenly oversees a team of 30, rather than finding people with training and expertise in people management. Some companies realized this long ago and have invested heavily in understanding their people, and these are the companies that top the “best companies to work for” lists. Those that have been relying on common sense or the way things have always been done are now experiencing resignation, reconfiguration, and re-evaluation by their employees.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
1. WHO WE HIRE: Demographic trends in the US are shifting dramatically: By 2029, there will be a 55% increase in people 65 and older in the workforce, while employees under- 25 workforce is will continue to decline, as will the number of employees between ages 45–64. This means companies will not be able to rely to the same degree on filling their talent pipelines with younger employees. We will need to think more broadly and creatively about how other age groups can help us fill our talent needs.
2. HOW OUR TALENT IS TRAINED: We will see organizations thinking more broadly about the kinds of education and training needed for the future of work. Traditional 4-year universities will continue to be important, but greater emphasis will be given to other kinds of training and certification. Take Google’s Career Certifications, which allow people to become certified in areas like Project Management and Data Analytics. Gen Z is already showing evidence that they aren’t automatically assume a college degree is the default path to a successful career. We are seeing them seek out options like technical schools in greater numbers than the last several generations. This is being driven by growing student loan debt and increasing opportunities in fields like the skilled trades. Gen X and Millennials weren’t encouraged to pursue those kinds of occupations, and that means there is now huge opportunity in those fields. As an educator, I always keep in mind that we are preparing students for jobs that probably don’t even exist yet.
3. AN END TO THE GENERATION WARS: This is the trend I most hope to start. Organizations have been ignoring age and generational diversity for too long. Age-based stereotypes are prevalent in the workplace (not just toward older employees, but younger ones as well), and we have normalized using one’s generation as an insult (OK Boomer?). Multigenerational workplaces are a reality and aren’t going away, yet very few companies have explored how to leverage this kind of diversity of thought and experience as an asset. That’s what my research on Gentelligence is about: how we reframe the potential of our multigenerational workforce and see it as an unprecedented opportunity for learning and innovation.
4. MVB: Most Valuable Boomers: I’m predicting a new kind of talent war for our oldest workers. Baby Boomers traditionally have been fairly loyal to their companies, having begun their careers at a time when it was the norm to stay with one organization for your entire career. While we’ve been speculating “when the Boomers will retire” for quite some time, but the increased health and longevity of this generation means they are rewriting the script on when (or if) someone wants to retire. We are seeing a fascinating trend now with more Boomers leaving their current jobs — not for retirement, but for new ones. Some feel they’ve done all they wanted to do in their current field or company, others feel they aren’t valued as an older worker where they currently are employed. They are starting their second or third act careers, and companies that jump on this trend and realize how valuable they are as human capital will reap the benefits of their decades of experience.
5. Embracing the Gig Worker: Even before the pandemic, we were seeing a surge in the gig economy. Now with so many people interested in seeking new opportunities and more flexible work arrangements, we all need to consider how a gig approach might benefit our own careers as well as our companies. While we might assume “gigging” is more of a Gen Z mentality, data is showing that Boomers are embracing it in high numbers as well, enjoying the part time nature and the flexibility this kind of work brings.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective? I love quotes so it’s tough to choose just one! Probably “Whatever you are, be a good one.”-Abraham Lincoln. I feel strongly that leadership comes from understanding the unique value you can add based on your talents and experience. You have a responsibility to explore and understand what that means for you.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
I’m going to say Daniel Pink. I love his ability to take important findings from organizational psychology and create a message people will listen to. He always creates interesting conversations.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
You can connect with me via LinkedIn or @profgerhardt on IG to learn about my work on Gentelligence (leveraging age diversity in the workplace), including the new Gentelligence Academy!
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.