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The Great Generational Shift


There is a “Great Generational Shift” underway in the workforce today.

This is the post-baby boomer shift that demographers and workforce planners have been anticipating for decades. It is not only a generational shift in the numbers in the workforce, but an epic turning point. This is the final stage of a historic period of profound change globally and a corresponding transformation in the very fundamentals of the employer-employee relationship.

On the older end of the generational spectrum, the workforce is aging, just as the overall population is aging. The boomers are filling up an “age bubble” in the workforce, such that there are many more people at or near the ordinary age range for retirement. At the same time, the fastest-growing segment of the workforce is made up of those born in 1990 and later, so there is a growing youth bubble on the younger end of the generational spectrum.

The oldest, most experienced people in the workplace, “pre-boomers” (those born before the post-World War II “Baby Boom” began in 1946) are still greater than 1 percent of the workforce. The baby boomers (born 1946-1964) are 30 percent, generation Xers (born 1965-1977) are 27 percent, and the millennial generation is 42 percent.

By 2020, boomers will be less than 20 percent of the Western workforce; older boomers (born before 1955) will be less than 6 percent. Second-wave millennials (those born 1990-2000) will be greater than 20 percent of the Western workforce and another 4-5 percent will be made up of post-millennials (born after 2000). And in most of the world, the youth bubble will be much, much larger.

At RainmakerThinking Inc., we have been tracking this transformation for more than 20 years. In our latest white paper on the subject, we presented the newest findings from our ongoing research.

This “Great Generational Shift” is no ordinary generation gap in the workplace. Because this is an era of profound historical changes, generational difference today is a powerful lens through which to understand changes in the very nature of the workplace:

  • The myth of job security is dead.
  • Short-term rewards and benefits are the “new normal.”
  • Employees today are much less likely to believe an employer’s long-term promises.
  • The free-agent mindset is now the prevailing workforce mindset.

The generational shift presents a whole new set of challenges for employers, employees and for managers at all levels.


Managing people is going to keep getting harder.  It has always been hard to manage people, but it’s going to get harder as the workplace becomes more and more high-pressure and the post-boomer workforce becomes more and more high-maintenance. 

High-pressure workplace. Managers will be under ever-increasing pressure from senior executives to get more work and better work out of fewer employees, while utilizing fewer resources. Even while managers juggle their own tasks and responsibilities, managerial spans of control (the number of employees officially reporting to each manager) are still increasing and most managers also have a steadily growing burden of administrative duties. 

It seems to most managers that they have less time than ever to devote to people management, even as workers of all ages need more regular guidance, direction, support and coaching in this high-pressure workplace. Younger workers typically require more regular guidance, direction, support and coaching. 

Millennials, in particular — stereotypically raised by “helicopter parents on steroids” — tend to thrive on strong, highly-engaged leadership; the more structure and boundaries, the better. Millennial workers are very unlikely to give their best efforts to a leader whom they perceive as weak or disengaged.

High-maintenance workforce. Managers will need to deal with and accommodate the growing needs and expectations of an increasingly diverse post-boomer workforce. Workers of all ages today rely every day on their immediate managers for help meeting their basic needs and expectations and dealing with a whole range of day-to-day issues that arise at work. 

Millennials are the most likely to make specific requests regarding work conditions including the assignment of tasks, resource planning, problem solving, training, scheduling, work location, work space, dispute resolution, guidance, coaching, recognition, promotions, raises, benefits and other rewards.

High-maintenance workforce, take two.  Workers of all ages today are more likely to disagree — often privately and sometimes openly — with their employers’ stated missions, policies and decisions.  Millennials are the most likely to disagree.

High-maintenance workforce, take three.  Workers of all ages are more likely to question or challenge employers’ rules, managers’ instructions, employment conditions, and established rewards structures.  Millennials are the most likely to question or challenge.

Most workplaces are severely under-managed considering the requirements of the post-boomer workforce. For workers of all ages, weak leadership — what we call “under-management” — leads to diminished productivity, greater worker error rates, lost resources, increased conflicts among coworkers and other personnel problems. It also leads to higher turnover among high performers and lower turnover among low performers, as well as managers spending more time on lower-level tasks.

In today’s increasingly high-pressure workplace, with today’s increasingly high-maintenance workforce, managers cannot afford to be weak and disengaged. 

To be effective in today’s environment, managers must be strong and highly engaged. Highly-engaged means conducting ongoing structured communication to provide every worker with regular guidance, direction, support and coaching. 

Strong means finding ways to do more for workers when they really earn it. That means doing more for some workers and less for others, based on their performance. That means holding people strictly accountable on a daily basis: setting expectations clearly, providing candid feedback, correcting problems, rewarding good work, and especially rewarding discretionary effort.

Editor’s note: This column is excerpted from RainmakerThinking Inc.’s white paper, “The Great Generational Shift.” The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.

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