As baby boomers cling tenaciously to their jobs rather than drifting off into retirement as had been predicted prior to the recession, there seem to be some inklings of negative perceptions, angst and even vitriol from their younger colleagues who are anxious for them to get out of the way.
In healthcare, where the average age of nurses has traditionally been high, the situation may be even more pronounced than in other professions or industries.
As we move into a new year, workplace issues will remain prevalent and healthcare will, of course, be front and center in discussions about reform and its impact on healthcare organizations and patients. One of five trends that Forbes has predicted in the world of work is a "multi-generational collision" in the workplace. A shortage of jobs, a decline in upward mobility options and differences in perspectives across generations are fueling the flames.
Tricia Pattee is director of product management for HealtheCAREERs in the Denver area. "Because of issues with a lot of people not being able to retire when expected, things are not necessarily progressing as everyone had planned when they started their careers," acknowledged Pattee.
Nurses are somewhat more fortunate than most when it comes to the work environment and job opportunities - their skills remain in high demand and are likely to continue to be in demand as the implications of healthcare reform continue to unfold.
But, said Pattee, younger nurses may find some challenges based on their lack of experience, a catch-22 that is all too familiar to many. "About 90-95 percent of the job postings are requiring an applicant with 3-5 years of experience," said Pattee. Once on board, she acknowledged, differences in perceptions and expectations between these new nurses and those who have been in place for a number of years - and who represent older generations - can create conflicts.
Pam Greene, PhD, RN, is senior vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at The Menninger Clinic in Houston. "Nurses need to see a career path," said Greene. "We have a leadership track in our career ladder as well as a clinical track - options that benefit the individual and the organization." Importantly, she noted, not everyone wants to be "on the ladder." Still, she said, options matter. Regardless of age or generation, she said, it's important to focus on rewarding and reinforcing strong contributors.
Finding Common Ground
While discussions about multiple generations in the workplace are prevalent these days, a focus on generational differences can be counterproductive, suggestrf Greene. "I think it can be damaging to stereotype," she said. "We want to foster the development of mutual respect and professional alliances, no matter what the differences happen to be."
The key, she said, with any areas of diversity or differences, is to maintain focus on "a shared mental model of how to deliver safe, quality patient care." That united focus, she said is relevant regardless of generation. "There are challenges and opportunities and we want to take advantage of the special skills each generation brings."
Lisa Johnson Mandell is the author of Career Comeback-Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Mandell is a baby boomer herself and willing to acknowledge some legitimate complaints that she heard while researching her book. The two most common lodged against baby boomers involved:
- Taking time off to attend to their families and expecting younger, single workers to finish the tasks.
- Not adapting to new technology and expecting younger workers to cover for them - "You're so good with computers, would you take care of it for me?"
She also heard complaints from boomers lodged against younger workers. The most common:
- They expect to be promoted quickly, without having proven themselves, just because they show up.
- They need constant, positive feedback.
The situation is awkward, but not insurmountable, she said. In fact, she noted: "Boomers need to recall how much they resented the Silent Generation for standing in their way."
Opportunities for Engagement
Healthcare organizations can get in front of this issue by putting processes in place to ensure that the wisdom of baby boomers and the enthusiasm of Gen X and Gen Y can be leveraged to provide advantage for all involved. In addition, HR professionals are looking at ways to impact the workforce through such means as early retirement packages, reassignment and leadership development programs.
One popular approach that has great benefit for nurses is the use of mentoring programs, said Pattee. "I think mentor programs are a really great opportunity to bridge the gap between these generations," she said. "Putting mentorship programs in place can allow these generations to learn from each other and change and conform to have more of a team environment." Successful programs can give younger nurses an opportunity to work with those at a higher level, and provide older nurses with an opportunity to get a fresh outlook on the profession, she noted.
Proactive education and coaching related to positive communication skills also can help navigate tense relationships in organizations where sensitivities exist. It is important to not ignore, but to acknowledge the potential for tensions that may exist - encourage discussions and interactions that can lead to understanding.
Planning for Succession Now Through Leadership Development
Recognizing that there will come a time when boomers do leave the workforce, nurse managers and their HR colleagues can also take a proactive stance in terms of preparing now for that inevitability. That pending reality may represent an opportunity for HR to engage Gen Y employees now, even if upward mobility isn't a possibility, through training and mentoring programs.
Jacquelyn B. James is an expert on ageism with the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. The issue is really nothing new, suggested James, but may be heightened by the recession. It's an age-old issue, she said: "The idea that one of the reasons younger people are having such a hard time (finding a job) is that older people are not fading out and making room for them."
A first step for organizations, suggested James, is to conduct an assessment of the workforce. What are the age ranges? When do you expect that a certain group will be exiting? "If, say, 50 percent of your workforce is over the age of 50, you might want to think about a plan for what's to come after that and how you can be making preparations both in terms of keeping older workers you might want to keep and also in seating younger workers in positions so they will be ready to move up when the time comes."
Gaps identified can serve as the basis for both training - and development opportunities, helping to minimize feelings of career stall for Generations X and Y. Additionally, baby boomers can be called upon to serve as mentors or coaches, leveraging the talent of all generations toward desired strategic endpoints.
For nursing professionals in organizations where movement may be stalled, assessment, analysis and intervention are key - with a healthy dose of open, respectful communication along the way.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a frequent contributor to ADVANCE.