As the Boomers Ebb, What Will the Tide Bring In?

If the public sector has lost its appeal to new generations, writes Feather O'Connor Houstoun, then surely its reinvention should be approached with an opportunistic mindset.
October 17, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

A dominant theme of this decade is the looming impact of the baby boomers' approaching retirement age. One of its most talked about manifestations is the impact on the workforce, particularly in the public sector. The Washington Post reports that with 60 percent of the federal civil service reaching retirement age in the next nine years, the Office of Personnel Management predicts retirement of 40 percent of the civil-service workforce in the next decade. The outlook is similar at the state and local level, though varied by individual jurisdiction.

Whatever the pace of change, the boomers will eventually be replaced by new waves of workers with increasingly different expectations for their careers.

For myself, I think this may be an opportunity masquerading as a challenge, but I seem to be in the minority. If the public sector -- where I spent most of my career with great joy -- has lost its appeal to new generations, then surely the reinvention opportunity involved in replacing a significant portion of it should be approached with an opportunistic mindset. Taking the long view, the quality of our public sector may depend on it.

Research and anecdotal experiences suggest the incoming workforce will be less hierarchical, more entrepreneurial, more likely to move from one job to the other, more accustomed to working in teams, and more technologically skilled.

One cannot help but be struck by how out of touch with contemporary workplace expectations the public sector often is. We want to attract smart, agile knowledge workers, but offer them rigid hiring processes and a non-portable pension that optimizes after a lifetime career.

Most of the problem-solving around this disconnect has been centered on changing recruitment strategies in an ever-competitive employment field. But if these new leaders and managers are fundamentally different, we need to be thinking more about using their mind-sets to reshape the government. If we don't, the government will be increasingly out of touch with public expectations for service quality.

The uneven quality of public-sector Web sites is a simple example. "Business as usual" sites are essentially electronic versions of government manuals and organization charts. One needs to know what department one needs in order to find it. Newly evolved sites start from the "service need" side and navigate the connections for the customer. Poor search engines suggest scrolling through "FAQs"; good ones take you directly to the right spot.

If there is a single quality characterizing these newer generations, it is one of connectivity. That connectivity, which does not follow pre-constructed organizational charts but rather the flow of information via myriad links, allows the new generation to see three-dimensionally, rather than looking at organization charts and along hierarchical lines of authority that characterize much of public-sector service delivery.

Those qualities are absolutely what the public sector needs, because the complexity of service delivery has risen exponentially in recent decades. Forget the search for "out of the box" solutions; success will depend on seeing problems and devising solutions that respond to that complexity.

The most spectacular recent failures of public service delivery flow directly from a failure to forge durable connections across public departments, across levels of government, and across sectors:

o Katrina, where absence of practiced plans of action involving federal, state and local governments, as well as private-sector entities, compounded the calamity of failing levees

o 9/11, where a failure to establish control and communication linkages among municipal first responders contributed to the tragic loss of life

Consider, in contrast, the popularity of 311 services that respond immediately to the citizen complaint with a connection to the right place and the accountability for follow-through. That popularity speaks to the growing impatience with seemingly impenetrable structures requiring inside information to navigate.

For the quality of future public service, it is more than a question of how to compete in the hiring of replacement workers, but how to engage these versatile, new thinkers in reshaping the workplace and the delivery of services to citizens. Technology may, with the right designers, transform much of the government to a workforce with far greater 311 characteristics: flat (non-hierarchical at least in function), direct (requiring fewer gate-keepers), responsive (directed by external users than internal manuals), and thriving on feedback.

A Reader Responds:

What Young Hires Need to Know

Today many municipal, county and state professional jobs require not only an educated but a thoroughly acclimated and mentored workforce. From my experience as a county planning director working on the fringe of the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Areas, not only are the issues confronting the region incredibly complex and interconnected, but our rapidly diversifying citizen constituencies require polite, competent, truly knowledgeable, locally informed public servants.

Further, intergovernmental cooperation has become essential in terms of funding for services. To obtain funding, exploratory meetings must be held with funding agencies to make a case that demonstrates consistency of purpose with between national, state or regional objectives and locally defined needs. Competitive and skillfully written applications must be developed. If funds are approved, contracts must be executed, inter-municipal cooperation agreements must be signed, and projects must implemented in accordance with contract requirements, professional standards of excellence and local expectations. Knowledge of cultural and physical geography, geology and local social and economic parameters of significance must be mastered.

Finally, any young hire who does not take the time to get to know relevant public officials and citizen constituents at every level of our growing multi-cultural and multi-generational society will soon run into antagonistic people. They will let the Gen Y'er know quickly that she or he cannot, in fact, "do" (aka "achieve") anything that they would like to do, and that the successful achievement of goals requires an extensive time commitment that adults in their lives have most often not told them they will have to make. Many of us finding that if we tell the young hire that it takes time, meaning years, to achieve results, they simply activate the resume that they most likely never took off the internet marketplace when they accepted their latest job.

Yes, the replacements for the Baby Boomers will use technology and they will attend more group meetings than they can handle. They can also expect to hear managers tell them that replacing face to face contact with e-mail and texting is not workable and unacceptable.

So far, throughout the private and public sector workplace, stories abound about young hires who didn't care about their jobs, who were not willing to commit to the achievement of long term goals and purposes, who left jobs after six months to a year when the mentoring period to produce an effective "knowledge worker" was two to five years, who thought that playing with technology was more important than mastering written language, human-to-human communication skills, analytical and policy formulation skills, and geographic, social and economic knowledge.

No, these characteristics do not apply to all young hires, but almost everyone in management already has a sad story to tell, one which cost the taxpayers substantially. Unfortunately, the young hires who do show commitment to a job or a profession are frequently looking at minimal pay increases (an investment cost for a professional future??), while they truly learn to be a valuable knowledge worker and/or a public servant, while their brothers and sisters who job-hop are seeing bigger increases in pay. The issue for the hoppers to consider is at what point will management expect a return from them that they cannot deliver. The issue for employers is consider rewarding those who work hard and stay with the job during difficult mentoring years.

The public workplace will certainly change with impending demographic shifts, but hopefully it will not change radically simply to meet the whims and perhaps misaligned expectations of a young generation which may just be beginning to grow up.

Richard H. Schmoyer, AICP

Director, Office of Planning and Development

Adams County, Pennsylvania