11 Oct An upside down view of the future
New Zealand. Lush, green, and blessed with majestic mountains, fertile valleys, sulfurous lava fields, and breathtaking water views. Oh, and a couple million sheep. After a day-and-a-half on airplanes (thank God I was able to fly business class), my weary, Northern hemispheric-orientated body touches down in another world. This is definitely not Kansas Frodo; in fact, it’s Auckland, on the north island of New Zealand. After dashing through customs, I am back on a plane, this time headed to my final destination – Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand.
Wellington sits on a peninsula at the very bottom of the North Island. It is reminiscent of San Francisco with its surrounding hills specked with houses and overlooking a picturesque harbor. The city is home to the New Zealand government as well as Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings film fame. It is difficult for me not to get a fresh perspective on things here. Wellington is located at the serious end of the Cook’s Strait, which appears to be one of the world’s biggest natural wind tunnels. I’m told it is absolutely howling here much of the time – winds sometimes so fierce that it difficult to walk against them. These winds blow like a southern hemisphere “Mistral.”
They also make an apt metaphor for the type of climate in which businesses seem to be operating today. The onslaught of globalization, technology advances, and demographic changes are creating howling winds buffeting nations and businesses. It’s tough going for anyone heading directly into them, but an almost effortless glide if they are directly behind your back.
A glimpse into the future?
On the phone with my family, I jokingly tell my teenage son that I am calling from the future. He thinks for a moment and then asks me whether his favorite football team held on to win the game!
But New Zealand actually provides an interesting glimpse of what’s in store for many developed countries. It has an aging population and full employment. Its young people possess a different ethic about work and life than their parents. A rite of passage for young Kiwis is to go abroad to study and/or work, but as many as 25 percent of these youths do not return. Sounds a lot like many smaller cities and rural parts of America, doesn’t it?
Losing some of the best and brightest talent has always been a problem for New Zealand, but now it’s exacerbated by a shortage of workers throughout the country. It has no choice but to find creative ways to make its current workforce more productive, keep people in the workforce longer, and lure back people that have left – both those out of the labor market as well as working abroad. A tough challenge.
A cross-generational perspective on work
I had the opportunity to take in some of the other sessions at the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand Conference. One of the most interesting ones involved a panel discussion with representatives of the four generations in the workplace, which provided a fascinating look at their different workplace perspectives and career aspirations.
The “traditionalist” was a 59-year-old woman who had recently retired from an executive career in business to “spend time with the old man” on their farm. A straight-shooter, she was delighted to be tending her garden rather than caring for knowledge workers. But she hinted that at a comeback to the corporate world could easily be in the offing if she were offered the right challenge and allowed a great deal of flexibility in defining her role and working arrangements. This is representative of the attitude that many talented workers nearing or in retirement exhibit. Old-style employment deals are unlikely to keep these individuals in the workforce or entice them back if they’ve left.
Next we heard from the Boomer who is a partner in a large consultancy. She raised four children, the last of which just left for university. After years of juggling the push and pull of job and family, this individual was now looking forward with renewed energy to devoting herself more fully to her work. She noted, however, that many of her male contemporaries were now “burned out.” This suggests an interesting paradox affecting the Boomer generation. Some like our panel participant who detoured off the fast track are embracing opportunities to jump back on it, while many who have been in the mainstream of careers and organizational responsibilities want to downshift or get out altogether.
Next was a thirty-something GenXer who had left her full-time job to engage in a “portfolio” of activities such as helping her husband establish his law practice, working part-time for a restaurant group, and doing volunteer work helping organizations and pursuing causes in which she strongly believes. This individual explicitly stated that she recognized that working this way didn’t produce as much financial rewards as would working full-time in a single career, but she cherished the flexibility, variation, and control over her work and her life. This was a tradeoff she and many other GenXers are happy to make.
Last on the panel was a Millennial in her mid-20s, who came across as bright, ambitious, agile, and impatient for stimulation and experiences. She had started her career working for an accounting/consulting firm and had become a transfer pricing expert. But she left the company because in her words, “I was bored, there were times when I didn’t have anything to do.” So she took a job producing events for a company running conferences and learning seminars. This move involved a pay cut, but in return she took on a job that gave her a huge amount of responsibility and autonomy – in effect allowing her to run her own little business. She loved it, particularly traveling to different countries and negotiating deals to establish her company in new markets.
But like many other younger workers, where she lives is as important to her as what she does. She told the audience that she recently accepted a new job with an international consulting firm that would base her in Chicago. Her explanation for the switch: “I really loved my job, so much so that I even tolerated not getting any raises for 12 months (this brought the house down). But it was time for me to move on because I really want to live in a big city.”
A rush of blood to the head
Maybe I’m just a little dizzy from my time at the bottom of the world, but in looking back it was especially compelling to spend time in a place where many of the demographic, labor market, and generational changes that have been predicted for so long are already writ large. What’s happening today in New Zealand may very well be coming soon to a theater near you, if it hasn’t already arrived.
The impacts of these changes could be severe and the solutions not easy. How well prepared is your organization to deal with them? Do you have a plan for retaining and attracting older workers? What are you doing to lure and motivate ambitious and agile younger workers? What steps have you taken to ensure that GenXers don’t opt out of your organization? And what opportunities are you providing to your Boomer employees who are burned out and looking for a new deal that renews their enthusiasm and energy?
The winds of workforce change are gusting – are your talent policies and practices designed to withstand them?
What generation are you and how satisfied are you with your current employment deal? Please e-mail Tony DiRomualdo at email@example.com to share your experiences and perspectives.
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