Connecting state and local government leaders
Baby boomers are becoming a smaller part of government staffs. An expert provides guidance on developing and retaining Generations X, Y and Z.
Lori Wolff, Idaho’s personnel administrator, has been thinking a lot about the generational shift among state employees. No wonder. The younger generations in her state are approaching about half of the workforce, while the baby boomer contingent has shrunk to under 20%.
Though the transition isn’t happening overnight, the changes are increasingly visible. “People are a little more casual,” says Wolff. “We used to be shirt and tie, and now, as long as you’re not meeting with the legislators, jeans are acceptable. I even have a millennial on my own staff whose hair is dyed bright blue. Would that have been the case ten years ago? Probably not.”
Wolff is one of many human resource directors attempting to provide an environment conducive to the success of a workforce made up of people from multiple generations. Knowing the hunger for guidance to achieve this goal, Leslie Scott, the executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives, arranged for Kristin Scroggin, a generational expert to give the keynote address at the membership association’s annual conference this fall. Scroggin speaks widely to both public and private sector organizations and runs a training and consulting company called GenWHY Communications.
She divides the workforce world into more categories than many others, arguing that there are dramatic differences in groups that span multiple decades, and lumping them all into one group can be counterproductive. For example, she sees distinctions between the 20-year span usually called Generation X, and divides it into two groups: the older she calls Generation X and the younger she dubs the xennials.
Following the conference, as we were chatting with NASPE members, it became clear that Scroggin’s research and observations would be of value to the far wider Route Fifty audience. So, we had a long conversation with her. Following are the highlights.
How significant is the change you see coming to the public sector workplace as the generations shift?
Kristin Scroggin: It's a big deal. In the next 10 years, fewer and fewer older baby boomers will be working. The younger half of that same generation—I call them the flower children—will also be leaving the workforce. All my research shows that employees who are part of Generation X, who are now in their 40s and early 50s, will be retiring earlier, around age 57.
If you haven’t been actively teaching your millennials how to move into leadership positions, it means you have no middle management. And you have no sustainability if you don’t hire young people.
Shouldn’t we be cautious about ascribing certain characteristics to a whole generation?
Scroggin: There are some things that can make [someone] an outlier. You may not fit neatly into a specific generation, if you’ve been in the military or you were raised outside of the United States for a few years during your childhood, or if you were raised by a single parent or in a big family or had parents who were older.
The more adult things you had to do as a child, the more you age up mentally. This is really advantageous to know about when you’re in the interview process and hiring young people.
Are there any regional differences, or does this carry through the country? Are there differences in generational attitudes among Republicans? Democrats? West? East? North? South?
Scroggin: I love doing this work because no matter where I go in the country, I can talk about the same things, and it will hit for almost every single place.
Do the generations operate differently in different countries?
Scroggin: One hundred percent differently. I could not take this exact same data and apply it in England or in India or in Australia.
When the Gen Xers and the millennials take over from the baby boomers and the flower children, what are the biggest changes that are coming?
Scroggin: It will be less about how many hours you get paid to work or what you wear and more about the quality of what you produce. The Gen Xers, [when they] are in authority, will look at an employee and it won’t matter if they’re the most brilliant person in the world. If they’re not producing on time and meeting deadlines, they’ll want them gone.
The Gen Xers are going to be tougher bosses?
Scroggin: I think they’re going to be tougher on quality and production.
What do government managers need to think about as they’re hiring the newest generation, the people you refer to as Generation Z?
Scroggin: The Gen Zs are high on having someone check what they’re doing and high on getting approval before they move on to the next thing.
I’m a xennial, right between a Gen X and a millennial. And I’m a latchkey kid. If you gave me a checklist of things you wanted me to do today, I would quit. I would be like ‘Why did you hire me, if you didn’t think I was capable of doing my job?’
But Gen Zs think, ‘Please, God. Give me a checklist of what you want me to do today.’
That’s because, all through school, they’ve been given extremely detailed information. For every single thing, we’ve given them a list. We gave them a list of all the supplies they needed and then we gave them a rubric that said how we’d grade them.
Then they come to work, and we say ‘go figure it out.’
So, in reality, if you built a checklist of what you want people from this generation to do -- they would love it.
As the younger generations come into the workplace, will policies regarding clothing be changing?
Scroggin: Clothing policy is going to be one of the big changes. Now, especially in government, a lot of people feel clothing is equal to power. The mayor walks around in a suit, and it doesn’t matter if it is 107 degrees.
There’s a sort of a hyper formality that exists in government, but now you’ll have people coming into government who look at clothing and hair and piercings and tattoos as a means of expression. When you force them into ‘everybody has to be a certain way,’ then they have a tendency to say, ‘I’m just not going to work there.’
There’s a huge debate about whether employees should continue to work at home, at least part of the time, or whether everyone needs to be back in a central office. Will the shift in generations affect that discussion?
Scroggin: A number of Generation Xers and millennials are basically saying ‘if you make me come back into an office, I'm quitting.’
This is a big pain point for these generations. When they were working at home during the pandemic, they had more control over their day-to-day environment and they’re not going to be excited about relinquishing that.
When you look at organizations that are Gen Xer led, they’re the ones that aren’t calling people back into the office. It’s the organizations that are heavily boomer dominated that are saying you have to come back.
How do the younger generations feel about this?
Scroggin: Gen Z is very risk adverse. That’s part of why they want to be in the office. They like to go and confirm choices and decisions with somebody who's been there for a longer time. In an office, they get to share the risk, which is something you don’t get when it's just you and your kitchen table.
I would bet you that most of your boomers have no idea that these Gen Zs want to come back in the office. Because all they’re hearing is coming from the Gen Xers and the millennials, who are saying ‘Don’t you dare make me come in.’ And they’re assuming that the Gen Zs want the same thing.
When the millennials get into power, what are the big changes we’re going to see?
Scroggin: Oh, gosh. Well, who knows? I think it’s really great that the millennials are moving into management positions just as a post-covid world is happening.
That’s because they're so adaptable. They grew up in a world in which everything was changing all the time. Anything they asked for at Christmas as second graders is now obsolete. You can’t even find it on eBay.
So they're used to rapid changes and they’re very adaptable and that’s exactly what you want when you are redefining what the workplace looks like. You want highly agile people in management positions.
If you could sum all this up, what’s your biggest piece of advice for the government officials. What’s the biggest takeaway?
Scroggin: Invest and reinvest in attracting and retaining millennials and Gen Zs. They're going to be the majority of your workers for the next thirty years.
They are your smartest possible investment. Make sure that you are doing everything you can to bring this next group of people in. Train them, refine their soft skills and do everything that you need to do in order to keep them.
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.
NEXT STORY: How Governments Can Find ‘Hidden Workers’