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Generational Insights Can Help Weather the Workforce Crisis


If you’ve been talking about millennials—how to hire them, how to retain them, how to motivate them as employees—you have best-selling author and speaker Neil Howe to thank. He coined the term, along with his co-author William Strauss, in their fourth book, Millennials Rising.

Howe combined skills as an economist, a historian, and a demographer to launch the concept of generational personalities that most of us now use casually. In his more than a dozen books are a depth of insight that has informed many business and political leaders’ strategies from the early 1990s to the present.

Currently, he serves as senior advisor to the Concord Coalition and senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

In advance of his keynotes at the 2019 Argentum Senior Living Symposium and Chief Executive Summit, he shared some of his views on generational cycles’ impact on the senior living industry.

Q: Senior living is facing a workforce crisis. Is that likely to continue?

A: The growth rate of our working-age population is sinking to zero. In fact, in the early 2020s, it will be absolute zero for a few years. Everyone is going to be competing.

Q: How do we attract them? What are their wants and needs?

A: Millennials need more structure, more supervision. They’re likely to feel they deserve attention. The Gen X motto is “I’ll take care of myself.” But millennials want to be taken care of.

Their issues are security, benefits, career path. Do they feel part of a cause? Do they feel part of a community? All of that is already beginning to be a much bigger issue in workplaces.

Q: Does the majority of women in senior living make a difference?

A: Millennial women are stressed. This is a generation that’s putting off marriage and having kids, so that puts a tremendous pressure on this generation.

Millennial women are the super-achievers; they’re the ones who did well in school, who got all the brownie points. And they’re achieving more—they’re graduating from high school more, getting more degrees, and working more. The millennial gain post-2009 in labor market, looking at the recent 10-year economic recovery experience, is much greater for women than men.

Q: What are some ways different generations can better work together?

A: So much said about millennials is negative … “They’re spoiled,” “They can’t take disappointment.” But they are very good at forming teams. They don’t need a boomer or Gen Xer to organize them. Tell them what the parameters are, what outcome you want, and let them organize themselves.

Another excellent feature of millennials is they like to help each other at work. This is something that wasn’t always true with young Xers and boomers—they felt they were competing against each other at work.

And of course, you want to draw your new leaders from the millennials.

I do think the overall paradigm is going to be much more one of orchestrated, managed teamwork and less of the free-agent hiring. That worked for Generation X; it won’t work for millennials.

Q: What’s ahead for the senior demographics?

A: Among the things I’ll probably be talking about at the keynotes is not only the generational transitions among workers, but the interesting generational transitions among your customers. You have a pan-generational workplace.

Today, the stereotype of a person in a senior community tends more toward an image of the GI Generation or Silent Generation. They tend to be conformist, have conventional cultural values, have long-term marriages, and they tend to be white.

A record small share of the Silent Generation were immigrants. People born in the mid-1920s to the 1940s had the smallest immigrant share of any generation in American history.

That will change with boomers. They’re less conventional, more likely to be divorced, less likely to have children. They’re more likely to be without backup savings or a defined-benefit pension plan. They’re more likely to have gone bankrupt. They’re taking a lot more risks, and they’re not doing as well economically.

This very wealthy group of 70-somethings that we’ve become accustomed to, with a lot of backstops, a lot of safety nets, a lot of insurance—that will change.  At the high end, you should have a good robust demand, because there are a lot of high-end boomers out there. But there are a lot more of what you call middle market, just above Medicaid level.

Thanks to FOX Rehabilitation for sponsoring the closing keynote session at the 2019 Senior Living Symposium.