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The Generational Shift and Retirement Tsunami Facing American Leaders

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

There is a generational shift in the workforce coming that will require a collaborative effort among current and upcoming leaders are in the workplace. A merging of the generations that will need a coordinated effort to make sure that the experience and organizational knowledge in upper management are transferred to the emerging leadership, specifically the differences between the generations of Traditionalist, Baby Boomers, GenX, and Millennials. Boomers and GenXers have an opportunity to impart their knowledge and experience to Millennials.

Sixty Percent of Government Employees are Eligible for Retirement

Almost 60 percent of government employees are eligible to retire (Green & Roberts, 2012). Green and Roberts (2012) identified that the government is concerned that their human capital practices are at “high risk”. Unless management takes this issue seriously they will be looking at a “retirement tsunami” (Green & Roberts, 2012). There is a shift in the workplace makeup as Traditionalist begins to disappear, the retirement of Boomers, and the increasing number of Millennials who are entering the workplace (Gallup, 2013). According to Green and Roberts (2012), the “government senior manager cohort consists largely of baby boomers setting the stage for conflict with the post-modernism orientation of the Generation X and Millennials that are replacing retiring employees” (p. 85).

Disengaged Employees Cost U. S. Companies up to $550 Billion a Year

As Traditionalists and Boomers move toward retirement there is a danger of them becoming disengaged. Other causes of disengaged employees are burned out, disenchantment with current management, and the lack of mentoring for upward mobility. Gallup (2013) estimates that the cost of disengaged employees for U. S. companies is $450 billion to $550 billion a year. Leaders and managers who focus on employee’s strengths have the ability to eliminate active disengagement (Gallup, 2013). Administrators will need to evaluate their current workforce and make considerations to ensure that there is adequate representation in their staffing. This should include looking at upcoming retirements and promotions. Due to the many Boomers that will be retiring in the next five to ten years, it is important to prepare for the loss of institutional knowledge and experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015) projects that “between 2014 and 2024, 36.4 million workers will enter the labor force and 28.6 million will leave” (p. 24). It is important the leadership embraces generational differences so that there will not be a significant talent and performance deficit (Green & Roberts, 2012). Those in leadership should be able to lead and manage the diverse workforce and adapt to the changes that are inevitable. Leaders need to recognize the diversity in the workplace and use it as a source of strength, not division (Gallup, 2013).

Implementing Mentor Programs, Generational Diversity Training, and Enhanced Communication Methodologies

It is always ideal to be an early adopter versus a lager when it pertains to change. It is not enough to just go with the flow but leaders must be able to identify needs for the future. Unfortunately, the transition for those in leadership has been limited in the public and private sectors. Management should consider using mentor programs, generational diversity training, and enhanced communication methods that are intended to accommodate to each of the generation’s preferences, which will foster productivity that supports their work environment (Kapoor & Solomon, 2011). Leadership training and mentoring programs will be essential in the next ten years, in the public and private sectors.

Engaging the Millennial Generation

There is a misconception that Millennials are over-sensitive, lazy and uncommitted. Instead, I will show how they are passionate, hard workers and are dedicated to social causes. Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, and Brown’s, (2007) study set out to separate the myth from reality and how the generational differences affect problem-solving in the workplace (p. 48). Millennials make learning a priority and find happiness in their families (Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007) While Millennials may not be as independent as GenXers, they are full of confidence and sensitive (Kapoor & Solomon, 2011). Leuenberger and Klüver found that the younger generations desire more frequent feedback than what is provided in annual evaluations (as cited in Green & Roberts, 2012, p. 90). Executive leaders through mentoring managers should select senior employees who are trained to provide the desired feedback (Green & Roberts, 2012).

By engaging Boomers and GenXers in diversity training managers can address the “needs, interest, and values of the emergent workforce” (Green & Roberts, 2012). Employers should take this opportunity to bridge the gap between the generations through training to foster engagement and collaboration. This will increase the employee’s motivation and commitment by giving them a sense of community. In our diverse workforce, values will differ among the generations based on their “beliefs, values, goals, work attitudes, world views and attitudes toward leadership” (Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007). These values shape their attitudes and willingness to adapt to change.

Reverse Mentoring

Another way to increase engagement is to consider reverse mentoring. Millennials and GenXers can develop leadership skills and enhance job skills by using technology to mentor and train the older generations on technology skills (Green & Roberts, 2012). Millennials are able to embrace technology and are comfortable with change (Kapoor & Solomon, 2011). They use technology as a resource for entertainment and problem solving.

Developing Leadership: Each Generation has Value

Each generation has value and is important to the growth of each other. In the public sector it is important to facilitate effective communication, progressive human resources and create a work-life balance that will ensure professional development, increase productivity and retain and attract personnel. This is done through leadership training. Pauchant pointed out that leadership has focused on the leaders and their followers rather than the development of leadership (as cited in Green & Roberts, 2012, p. 81 ). In order to gain credibility, a leader must be real, relevant, and respectful of this generation's sub-cultural needs (Kapoor & Solomon, 2011). Millennials are not as forgiving as other generations for ineptitude and lacking leadership skills (Kapoor & Solomon, 2011).

Millennials are not a disconnected group of people that only have their sights set on fulfilling their own needs. They are passionate, adventurous, and sympathetic individuals who had Boomers and GenXers as the major influence and role models growing up. Parents of Millennials used nurturing methods in their upbringing and lead by example. Hinote and Sundvall (2105) believe that the strengths of Millennials outweigh their weakness and as leaders we must harness their creative power, enthusiasm, and ability to work in teams (p. 132). Kouzes and Posner explained that when leaders lead by example the employees know they are committed. (as cited in Green & Roberts, 2012, p. 89). Spiro found “that while money is important to Millenials, their key motivator is maintaining a work-life balance, seeking out companies that foster strong workplace relationships, promote a sense of purpose or make a difference” (as cited in Kapoor & Solomon, 2011, p. 313).

Generational Differences Will Effect Leadership Styles

Generational differences are evident in the various leadership styles. Zemke et al., (1999) points out the differences in “attitudes, values and beliefs of the several generational cohorts are believed to influence how each generational cohort views leadership, which then manifest itself in use of different preferred leadership styles” (as cited in Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007, p. 53). Sessa et al., (2007) found that Boomers choose a mutual and consensual method through communication and sharing responsibility, however, GenXers are egalitarian and have little respect for authority, but put a high value on honesty, fairness, competence, and straightforwardness, and while Millennials prefer the respectful dynamics of authority, collaboration, and expect their leaders to bring it together (p. 54). Millennials desire interaction with leaders and want to apply their knowledge and skills (Hinote & Sundvall, 2015). They want to be able to have direct access to leadership and use dialogue to facilitate change (Hinote & Sundvall, 2015). When leadership and management are open to new ideas that come from the younger generations they build trust and ensure that communication and respect are bi-lateral resulting in a high probability of knowledge transfer and trusted relationship.

Transferring Knowledge and Building Trusted Relationships

It is this type of knowledge transfer and trusted relationship building that mentorship and training should produce. Therefore as has been established thus far, creating and implementing said programs are a critical success factor for the next generation of leadership. The research needed for the creation of these programs should be at the center of our doctoral programs, public human resource initiatives, and private leadership training and consulting firms. The areas our research should focus on are the follow according to Hannam and Yordi (2011) who have identified six trends that are affecting the multi-generational workforce (as cited in Pynes, 2013, p. 28):

• Increased use of new technology

• Increased expectation for work-life flexibility

• Increased expectation for continued development

• Increased need for new ways to reward and recognize employees

• Increased need to engage the entire workforce

• Increased emphasis on innovation

The results of the research should culminate in the creation of leadership and mentoring programs that are needed to enable leaders and managers to engage in succession planning that will utilize the knowledge and experience of the Traditionalist, Baby Boomers and Generation Xers to effectively mold Millennials into strong leaders. If we do this we can stave off the predicted “leadership tsunami” and allow both public and private entities make a smooth transition between generational leadership. However, if we do not those of us in the know should make it a priority to prepare ourselves to fill this gap and to practice good mentorship techniques to contribute as best we can.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015, December). United States Department of Labor. Retrieved March 04, 2017, from projections-to-2024.htm

Gallup. (2013). State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders.

Green, D. D., & Roberts, G. E. (2012). Impact of Postmodernism on Public Sector Leadership Practices; Federal Government Human Capital Development Implications. 41 (1), 79-96.

Hinote, S. C., & Sundvall, T. J. (2015). Leading Millennials. Air & Space Power Journal, 131-138.

Kapoor, C., & Solomon, N. (2011). Understanding and managing generational differences in the workplace. Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes, 3 (4), 308- 318.

Pynes, J. E. (2013). Human Resource Management For Public and Nonprofit Organizations: A Strategic Approach (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sessa, V. I., Kabacoff, R. I., Deal, J., & Brown, H. (2007). Generational Differences in Leader Values and Leadership Behaviors. The Psychologist-Manager Journal , 47-74.

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