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Talkin' About Their Generations: The Workforce of the '50s and Today

March 15, 2012
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Related Topics: Retirement/Pensions, Top Stories - Frontpage, Generations, Benefits, Talent Management, Workplace Culture
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AMC's Mad Men

In 1958, Mel Bloom started working for the CBS owned-and-operated television station in Chicago. The young journalist was eager to work in the fast-growing medium. After all, almost 90 percent of U.S. households owned a television by then, a tenfold increase since the decade's dawn.

Bloom's generation became known as the conformist "company men" portrayed most recently in the popular cable show Mad Men. Bloom's peers have largely left the workforce by now. But their experience is a reminder of the way each American generation finds its way into the world of work—and in doing so presents challenges both to previous generations and to employers.

Dubbed the "Silent Generation" by Time magazine, those born between 1925 and 1942 had their entrance into careers eased by a thriving economy. Consumers were not only buying televisions but also cars and other big-ticket items unavailable during wartime shortages. Fueling spending, the postwar population was growing at a historic pace." Builders raced to meet the demand for houses as new parents left cities for the plush parks and new schools of suburbs.

TV networks catered to their children—a generation later dubbed "the baby boomers" who, today, are at or nearing retirement age in unprecedented numbers—with a roster of series that would become part of the nation's lexicon: The Howdy Doody Show on NBC, Disneyland and later The Mickey Mouse Club on ABC, and Captain Kangaroo on CBS.

Off the air, CBS' WBBM-TV, which was then located a couple of blocks east of Chicago's iconic Magnificent Mile, was like most offices of the 1950s: Bloom and his colleagues were expected to wear crisply ironed dress shirts with ties and to keep a suit coat within arm's reach.

No one worried about ambience. WBBM's workspace, a former ice-skating rink, felt like a "concrete fortress," Bloom recalls, because of its cinder block walls. (The building was demolished in 2009.)

The newsroom's workforce—like the majority of white-collar workers at the time—was 100 percent white, Bloom remembers. Women were secretaries, with the notable exception of one editor.

Only one person over age 65 worked at the station. He had been asked to stay on, Bloom says. Without such an invitation, retirement at 65 was compulsory.

Bloom joined WBBM as an intern and, upon completing his master's degree from Northwestern University, became a full-time news writer. Despite being a self-described "kid," he received little coaching. "Nobody would put their arm around you and mentor you," Bloom says.

Some of the older workers grumbled about the new guys. After all, many of them weren't old enough to remember the Great Depression and hadn't fought in World War II.

"They talked about our generation not knowing what it was like to fight and struggle," Bloom says. They were critical that "we never seemed to get excited or upset."

In general, the workplaces of the 1950s enjoyed intergenerational harmony, labor historians say. Young workers of the 1950s gained a reputation for following rules and obeying authority. In fact, Fortune magazine lamented their "grey flannel mentality" and penchant for "taking no chances."

Pragmatists, they wanted to fit in the system, not defy it.

"They were very fatalistic of what authority required of them," says Neil Howe, president of the consulting firm LifeCourse Associates. "The idea was: Trust these big institutions built by all these people who sacrificed so much and try to get ahead by playing by the rules. And they did."

Young professionals of the 1950s "wanted to hunker down and be the experts," Howe says. They married young, started families quickly, and rarely—if ever—jumped ship to another company.

"It was a different world back then in many ways," says Melvyn Dubofsky, distinguished professor emeritus of history and sociology at Binghamton University in New York. "There were a lot of incentives to remain with the company at which you started."

Among them: job security, automatic cost-of-living raises, defined benefit pension plans and retiree health insurance, which was particularly important in this pre-Medicare era.

Although employers in the 1950s took a paternalistic view and valued workforce stability, many firms required employees to retire at age 65. Such policies reflected a commonly held assumption that performance decreased as age increased.

But with more Americans relatively healthy at 65, researchers began to question that belief.

In a May 1953 issue of The Personnel Journal, Workforce Management's predecessor, a researcher from Ohio State University argued in an article titled "Older Workers' Efficiency in Jobs of Various Types" against "premature forced retirement." Research fellow Mark Smith reached his conclusion after examining the performance evaluations of 903 men, ages 18 to 76, at a large company. He said he selected these personnel records because their "spontaneity and informal nature" made them "unbiased."

Smith determined that speed and the ability to learn decreased with age but "steadiness"—which he did not define—and the ability to work without supervision improved with age.

Pointing out that the company had 16 workers in their 70s and 46 workers aged 65 to 69, Smith concluded that "an arbitrary retirement age of 65 would have cost this organization a very considerable number of valuable employees." Simple changes such as better lighting or more comfortable chairs may be all older workers need to remain productive, he said.

Questions surrounding the aging of the workforce remain pressing today. And four generations can be found in the labor force—more than ever before.

Another large generation—this time, the millennials—is entering the labor market in a time vastly different than what their grandparents faced during the Eisenhower era.

Meanwhile, retirement has moved out of reach for their baby boomer parents. Boomers increasingly gauge when to retire not by age but by personal savings. And, collectively, they haven't saved enough.

Almost 30 percent of Americans in their 60s have saved less than $25,000, according to the seventh annual Retirement Survey from Wells Fargo & Co. With defined benefit pension plans rare, one-quarter of middle-class Americans say that they will need to work until at least age 80, Wells Fargo's survey found. For point of reference, the average life expectancy is 78, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With boomers postponing their retirements, the talent pipeline has become clogged. Boomers are staying put in senior leadership posts, and Generation X sees little chance of advancing, at least anytime soon.

"People in their 30s and 40s see that they're reporting to someone who they don't think is going anywhere," says Colleen O'Neill, senior partner in talent management consulting at Mercer. "Those folks are sitting in what you thought was your feeder pool for your senior leaders. A lot of companies have just been hoping that those folks will wait."

Generation X hasn't switched employers yet, but its members feel discouraged, O'Neill says.

Forward-thinking companies are responding to the situation by exploring everything from special projects for Generation X to lateral moves for baby boomers. "Those companies have to make a decision: Are they going to move people out and create some opportunity for that next generation?" O'Neill says.

Stalled advancement combined with generational differences have fueled conflict. About one-quarter of HR professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management last year reported substantial levels of intergenerational conflict within their organization. At half of the organizations, managers complain about younger workers' poor work ethic.

Companies that laid off expensive veteran employees during the recession and later replaced them with less-expensive entrants stoked conflicts, says the University of California's Lichtenstein.

"Today, there is more generational conflict when you have two-tiered wage structures," says Lichtenstein, author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor.

It's not just older workers who are upset, based on SHRM's findings. Younger workers complain that older managers are resistant to change (47 percent) and don't give enough recognition (45 percent).

Looking at just two of the four generations in today's workplace—Generation X and the millennials—shows some of the differences that could give way to these sentiments.

Generation Xers didn't receive a lot of grooming and mentoring, says David Stillman, co-founder of generational consultancy BridgeWorks. "It was sink or swim," he says. "Now they're managing millennials who want endless collaboration, lots of group activities and tons of feedback. They're clashing."

To move interactions from clashing to constructive, work groups should look for ways to use their differences to their advantage rather than argue about which way is right, Stillman says.

He also suggests that Generation X managers improve their acumen at running teams, and millennial workers become more comfortable working alone and prove their independence.

The younger generation also seeks a different type of employer, argues Howe, who is credited with naming the millennial generation. They're looking for "the perfect employer who will be their ally and take care of them." That reflects a marked change from the nomadic generation they follow, which ushered in terms like "value added" and gravitated toward entrepreneurism.

"We're seeing the return of the in locus parentus employer," Howe says.

It's a complex but not hopeless situation.

Generations tend to value many of the same benefits but want them for different reasons, says Karen Sumberg, senior vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation, known as the Center for Work-Life Policy until this year.

For example, all the generations value flexibility: the Silent Generation and boomers to phase into retirement and Generation X to balance work with child-care obligations. Millennials arrive in the workplace expecting flexibility and seeing it as the natural way to work.

"Generational differences are interesting and certainly they're important, but certainly they don't override what the general employee population needs," Sumberg says.

Looking ahead, Sumberg anticipates that companies will offer creative arrangements for boomers so the organizations don't lose boomers' knowledge base

Now 72, Bloom is one such executive. He left WBBM in the mid-1960s and went into not-for-profit management. After 27 years as chief executive of the American Technion Society, an independent organization that raises funds for the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, he plans to retire by year's end.

He and his board have agreed upon a plan in which he'll serve as an emeritus officer at a 75 percent pay status for two to four years with a varying time commitment. The transition will allow him to train and mentor his successor.

Todd Henneman is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.


Take the Pew Research Center's "How Millennial Are You?" Quiz.

Pew also has more generational information here:

"What Makes Your Generation Unique?"

Recent Articles by Todd Henneman

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