Canute S. Thompson, GUEST COLUMNIST
Peter Drucker, in one of his many acts of perspicacity, had predicted that the workplace of the 21st century would be characterised by the predominance of the 'knowledge worker' whose capacity to contribute meaningfully to the fortunes of an organisation would be buttressed by the commoditisation of knowledge, as is now the case with the Internet.
Among some of Drucker's profound and prophetic assertions about the knowledge worker in the 21st century were:
That the 21st century demanded that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves.
That knowledge workers have to manage themselves - they must have autonomy.
That knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker.
One of the common errors that many persons have made in interpreting Drucker is that of assuming that he saw the knowledge worker and youth/young as one and the same. Thus in the conceptions and conversations about the workplace of the 21st century, there has been a default notion that there will be no place for the 'old'.
The idea that the workplace of 21st century will have little room for the old, which is almost the same as saying the old cannot be classified as knowledge workers, is solidly mistaken, even if one may be sympathetic to it. This idea is not only mistaken, but points to the need for a redefinition of what being old means.
GLOBAL DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS
Erickson (2012) notes that whereas the world's population used to be shaped like a pyramid - lots of young people, a medium number of middle aged, and a few old folks - the demographic geometry has shown radical changes in the last few decades. She contends that the demographics of many countries show diamond- or rectangular-shaped populations, and some countries are heading towards inverted pyramids where the old will outnumber the young.
These changes, Erickson notes, are driven or cemented by the global changes in fertility patterns which show birth rates falling below replacement levels of 2.1 children per woman and stabilising at about 1.85 children per woman in many parts of the world.
In addition to the foregoing consideration, the following facts are worth noting:
(a) Birth rates in Western Europe, the United States, China and Japan are all under replacement levels today.
(b) China's birth rate has fallen from 5.8 children per woman in 1950, to 1.55 children per woman in 2011.
(c) Africa's birth rate fell from about five children per woman in 1950 to just over four in 2000 and is projected to fall to three by 2030.
JAMAICA'S POPULATION SHIFTS
The changes in the distribution of the global population are also reflected in Jamaica's population, as seen in the table below, sourced from the 2011 Statistical Institute of Jamaica Census Report (See TABLE 1 below).
The data confirm that of the four cohorts, the one that has seen the greatest growth are the 45-64, which consists of those who are nearing or have passed retirement age (of 60 years). The new entrants to the workplace and the future workplace populations, respectively, have either seen modest growth or significant decline.
The effect of this is that many organisations (both the public and private sector) will need the services of retirees for much longer periods than before. This fact means that organisations will now have to be engaged in examining issues of how organisational renewal is pursued and how talent is managed.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANISATIONAL RENEWAL
Generally, people become more conservative as they get older; become more comfortable with their realities and less worried about the future. Thus, many reformists, radicals and communist-minded professors who were hostile to the status quo in their 20s, 30s and 40s begin to show signs, not merely of fatigue and burnout in their 50s, but either a quiet acquiescence to, or embrace of, things as they are.
In some cases, some develop a capacity to defend the same status quo they once derided with amazing eloquence. In a context in which the probability of having more 'mellowing' and mature people in the workforce than radicals (who will question and challenge), the prospects for organisational renewal present a challenge.
This challenge arises not only from the simple fact that these mature workers have been in those systems for a considerable while, but from the fact that they are now probably losing their critical edge they now both fail to feel the flaws and lack the grit to take on the system.
But in so far as organisational renewal is critical for organisational survival and success and requires the presence of workers who are continuously learning and teaching, it means that these (erstwhile labelled) old workers (who now dominate the workplace in terms of numbers and possibly also influence) will have to be placed in a position where they can provide the continuing razor-like analysis of issues and exercise the fearlessness of youth to undertake the reforms which organisations need if they are to overcome entropy and malaise.
Thus, one of the critically important skills that leadership coaches will have to provide to organisations will be in the area of equipping mature and maturing employees with the skills necessary to maintain a critical eye on the soul (culture) and face (practices) of the organisation with a view to injecting it with the nimbleness required for continued success.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TALENT MANAGEMENT
With the demographic changes referenced above, however, it would appear that the challenges that organisations now face, or will face in the near future, will be less about the recruitment and retention of talent and more about how to deploy talent. With the reality of an older workforce, a number of issues immediately present themselves for the organisation's considerations. These include, but are not limited to:
(i) How to engage mature and talented workers in ways that enable them to both pass on skills to less (chronologically) mature workers without creating conditions in which neither feels imposed on the other nor becomes overly desirous of seeing the other fail or disappear.
(ii) Creating options, which may involve the expenditure of less time and therefore less demand for physical presence in the workplace, that enable to them to focus more on mission-critical (strategic) activities. (Issues of compensation and value-added are central in these spheres, and organisations will have to ensure that equity is not compromised).
(iii) Redefining the culture of the organisation in ways that result in a deepening of mutual regard of young to old, and vice versa, such that the presumption that only the old have insights to transfer or transmit becomes transformed into a new cultural milieu where both recognise that they can learn from each other.
Given the biological fact that with age (even while we remain 'young'), our energies and capacities experience alterations (and may diminish), organisations will have to ensure that their investments in the development of workers are so distributed as to enable recovery of such investments over a longer period.
The good news is that if the responsibility for productivity were imposed on the individual knowledge worker as Drucker suggested, the maturing worker is likely to be more productive and efficient in higher-order and more complex tasks as he or she matures.
The challenge for the organisation is that of creating the stimulants that will ensure that this maturing worker, who is likely to be more conservative, remains (or becomes more) creative and willing to question the status quo.
It also is logical that a mature worker, of the ilk of Drucker's 'knowledge' characteristics, will require less supervision and greater autonomy. Again, it will be the responsibility of the organisation to ensure that the worker is given the enrichment of context and content such that he or she sees continuous learning as indispensible to survival.
Dr Canute Thompson is a leadership coach and co-founder and convener of the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, Centre for Leadership and Governance, UWI. Email feedback to email@example.com.
CHANGES IN JAMAICA'S POPULATION DISTRIBUTION 2001-2011
(Selected Age Cohorts)
AGE COHORT CENSUS 2011 PER CENT CENSUS 2001 PER CENT TOTAL CHANGE PER CENT CHANGE
Under 15 702,834 26.05 838,672 32.16 -135,838 -16.20
15 - 29 751,849 27.87 676,669 25.95 75,180 11.11
45 - 64 480,240 17.80 352,861 13.53 127,379 36.10
65+ 217,607 8.07 200,013 7.67 17,594 8.80