At some workplaces, you can practically smell the impatience of younger employees waiting for boomers to get out of their way. The self-reliant Generation X wants its own piece of the action and senior slots — and Gen Y and Millennials have their eyes on the fast track, too.
That’s why it’s up to midlifers to make a compelling case about their value to employers. More important, they need to convince themselves — and they can start by embracing non-traditional roles.
As a specialist in this area, I can offer ammunition to help men and women in their 50s and 60s build their cases.
What Employers Will Want
Before the Great Recession, there was serious concern about an impending labor shortage because the Gen X workforce is so much smaller than the boomer team. At the time, employers were focused on holding on to their 50-something and 60-something employees for their interpersonal skills, institutional knowledge and contacts.
As the economy expands, these attributes will be highly valued again. Many bosses will need senior employees to compensate for a Gen X leadership gap and to assure critical knowledge transfer from older workers to younger ones. But employers also need to reduce labor expenses, provide leadership opportunities for Gen X staffers and retain ambitious Gen Y/Millennials.
(MORE: Your Next Job Could Be a Lateral Move — on Your Way to the Top)
So boomers need to become “career entrepreneurs” to keep their jobs and get hired in the future. Here’s how to do it:
Make your case in strategic and economic terms. At your next annual review or in a job interview, talk about your judgment, well-honed skills, loyalty and work ethic. And mention the general shortage of Gen X leaders and experts.
Impress upon your boss the scenario facing the organization: if boomer incumbents leave, the company will lose knowledge and experience, jeopardizing relationships with customers and vendors. If you can, put dollar estimates on these elements.
Work with your employer to develop a role shift program that lets boomers stay and add value in new ways, while opening opportunities for Gen Xers. To lengthen your stay in the workforce, you may need to turn over a leadership post to the next generation and accept a supporting role, reporting to a manager younger than you are.
This doesn’t necessarily mean a pay cut. For example, you might give up a management position, but become a high-value expert team member or a “senior statesman” coach, transferring your knowledge to colleagues.
To shift your role this way, you might talk with management about adopting a new policy that institutes financial rewards for newly designed positions focused on training, mentoring and coaching younger workers. It could help reduce resistance from boomers to this type of change.
(MORE: 4 Tips to Become a Generation Flux Employee)
These jobs could be full-time or flexible and part-time. Management level employees on a reduced-hours schedule with full benefits are usually assigned to special projects that fit their talents. Companies frequently find that these types of arrangements cost less than bringing in, training and integrating new employees.
Look for opportunities to mentor in your current position. Present your boss with examples of the economic and cultural value of reciprocal mentoring and other mutual learning alternatives. Then volunteer to be a mentor at work, so you can contribute your expertise and gain new insights and skills.
After Scripps Health launched a clinical mentor program in which seasoned nurses helped younger colleagues deal with difficult patient interactions, the junior staffers gained confidence — and fewer of them left.
If you’ll be looking for work, track down the best employers for people over 50. AARP publishes a "best employers" list. Repeat winners include Scripps Health, Cornell University and First Horizon National Corp., a financial services firm. The Families and Work Institute’s “When Work Works” study also notes employers that get high marks for offering perks of particular interest to people over 50, like phased retirement, flexible hours and caregiving benefits.
Always keep learning. Ask yourself what you could be doing to improve your skills and assure your continuing relevance at your job (or ease the path to your next one). Boomers have a bad reputation for resisting change. Show your boss that you understand the need for an agile workforce and creative arrangements to meet a changing economic, cultural and demographic environment.
Gen Xers are accustomed to fending for themselves at work, relying on their own inventiveness and adopting an entrepreneurial mentality. That’s how they’ve always done it. Boomers need to do the same — for their livelihood.