By STEPHEN REILY
2011 may be the year when the first Baby Boomers turn 65, but the average Boomer is still only 54, and the nearly 40 million female Boomers (few of whom expect to retire anytime soon) will remain a meaningful part of the workforce for many years to come. Successful managers need to get the most out of these women, both individually and in the context of a multi-generational workplace.
At VibrantNation.com, the leading online community for Boomer women, our members connect with each other on topics unique to their stage of life – topics like work. As we watch those conversations, and conduct ongoing research among our members, we learn a lot about what the Boomer woman wants and needs to succeed at work.
A New Life Stage
The most important thing about Boomers is not that a few are now 65 but that most of them have turned 50, an age that symbolizes for women the most dramatic transition in life after motherhood. A variety of factors at age 50 serve to remind a woman of her mortality and may represent the first time when she has to admit that some of the most important things in her life are well beyond her control.
Managers need to understand these changes not necessarily as bad news, because they come with a silver lining as well. As they cross into their 50s, women also experience a post-menopausal surge in energy that can serve them well in the workplace.
Boomers have always sought to make the world a better place, a goal that is strengthened as they realize life won’t last forever. Managers need to tap into this altruism while also recognizing that some of their aging employees are experiencing stresses associated with going through a major life transition.
Insecurity and Ageism
Women uniformly tell us that, somewhere around age 50, they experience (for the first time in their lives) the feeling of invisibility. That can happen in the shopping mall, on the subway, or, as one VibrantNation.com member described, in the workplace:
“It really doesn’t matter what I do or how I do it, I find that once you’re a certain age and a woman, you’re fairly invisible. I find that younger colleagues and male colleagues my own age and older regularly tune me out and treat me as though I’m not there.”
Managers who themselves avoid any signs of age discrimination need to understand that such discrimination is regularly inflicted by colleagues. At one level this kind of activity could result in hostile workplace claims, but even at an everyday level it represents cultural ageism that can and does leave Boomer women feeling insecure and unsupported.
For the generation of women who broke the glass ceiling at work, invisibility is painful, and often leaves them craving recognition – a need that can sometimes dominate their actions.
Managers need to see that ageism is included in diversity training and conversations, but also need to help the Boomer woman understand that she is working in a multi-generational workplace, and – without blaming her for this feeling – help her see that the best way to get attention may be to give it to members of other generations, too.
Managers also need to understand that the recession and recent demographic developments have created a lot of stress for women at work. The recession has generated enough layoffs to put almost all jobs at risk while also hitting retirement savings hard enough that the Boomer woman may feel she has to work even after she no longer wants to.
As for demographic shifts, no one is discussing the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is that companies may not be able to employ all the people who want to work in the next 20 years, and Boomers who need or want to keep working don’t know where they will end up when the next generation of talent advances.
In this mix of stress factors, feelings of inter-generational resentment are natural. Managers need to address these questions openly as all employers tackle the most complicated succession challenge in our history.
On a day-to-day level, managers can motivate Boomer women by giving them regular recognition and credit for their work. Even on a small scale, incentive and employee recognition programs can offer the Boomer woman the credit she’s looking for.
Managers need to understand the lives of Boomer women to deliver benefits that will motivate and appropriately reward all generations in the workplace. Here are a few important facts to remember:
She’s still a mother – and a daughter. Our research makes clear that Boomer women are tackling a host of domestic challenges that range from unemployed children who have moved back home to faraway parents with Alzheimer’s. 71% say that living in an intergenerational household makes it harder to achieve their own goals.
She’s taking control of her finances, but needs help. As women age, they typically take a stronger role in managing their family’s finances, and in a recent survey they told us that they fear a future in which they may not be financially independent. If you offer financial planning benefits, make sure your partners work well with women.
She’s technically unconfident. Women are clearly capable of using all professional tech tools, but they don’t always know it, and they often fear that any technical ignorance will be revealed. Consider offering low-key sessions (run either by your IT department or colleagues) where employees can ask questions and get up-to-speed on software tools you may take for granted.
Assign Them to New Projects
More businesses are started by people over 50 than those who are younger. Boomer women have energy to start new projects and good judgment for evaluating them. Managers should avoid the subtle ageism that may cause them to reserve new projects for younger employees and assign qualified Boomer women to them as well. By confirming your belief in her capabilities you will give her the recognition she seeks and an outlet for her entrepreneurial goals that may reward you, too.
Managing Boomer women can be complicated. They want attention but don’t want to be patronized. They want to be respected but may be reluctant after 30+ years to learn new ways of working. Trainers need to spend more time better understanding Vibrant Boomer Women to get the most out of them in the years ahead.
Stephen Reily is the CEO of VibrantNation.com, an online community devoted exclusively to the influential and fast-growing Boomer demographic of smart, successful women over 50. Contact Reily at firstname.lastname@example.org.