This morning on NPR there was a piece with Howard Dean about how older leaders should step aside and make way for a new generation. This has popped up in politics a bunch of times over the past couple of years, as the elected officials seem quite old. Our last presidential election gave options of a 69 and a 70 year old. With an ex president leaving office at the age of 55. The thing that most frustrates me about this reporting is it never talks about the root cause, which is demographics.
After the baby boom, there was quite a baby bust. Births don’t tell the whole story, as immigration / emigration still move population around, people die, etc. But here is a 2015 snapshot of population by age.
You can see that birth shape still in overall demographics, including the 1970-71 mini spike. It’s been filled in a bit by immigration, and the baby boom is less evident now that boomers are in their 60s and up and dying off. But it’s still there. And it’s important.
The Leadership Hole
About a decade ago I had the incredible opportunity to participate in a year long leadership excellence program at IBM. One of the classes was generational leadership, at a time when millennials were just about to enter the workforce. The teach talked about this demographic hole (all in generalizations).
The Baby Boomers were one of the largest generations, Gen X one of the smallest, the Millenials are nearly as big a generation as the Baby Boom. Gen X saw their parents laid off by large institutions, and the reaction is a huge upward trend in starting their own businesses. There are both less Gen Xers, and far less of them participating in large institutions still.
This means that as the Baby Boomers age out, who steps up? There aren’t actually a ton of Gen Xers there in the wings. And the Millennials are all very young and haven’t had the depth of experience yet. Do you try to fast promote them and hope they pick up enough along the way? Many will, lots of “tribal knowledge” is going to be lost along the way. That might be good or bad depending on what habits were carried forward, but it’s unlikely to be a smooth transition regardless.
What Generational Discontinuity Looks Like
This is what generational discontinuity looks like. A flip of 60 / 40 opinion of something being bad vs. good in a 10 year period. Conventional wisdom, accepted norms, flipping really quite quickly after decades of the old attitude being around without any real changes.
Through this lens, the “why now?” of the Silence Breakers are another one of these 60 / 40 flips that we are right in the middle of the crossover. All of this was “accepted” until it wasn’t, and it will take a decade to fully entrench the new norm. Lots of people knew all this wasn’t ok, but it took Millennials standing up, and Baby Boomers dying out, to flip it.
There are Costs
It’s easy to see social progress and assume this is mostly upside. But there are costs of not carrying down experience and understanding. This analysis of the USS McCain collision showed how this leadership hole is hitting the Navy:
But the US Navy has its own particular history of creating fatigue through stress. The Navy’s Surface Warfare community has a reputation for “eating its young.” A “Zero-Defect” management mentality toward leadership has, despite entreaties from higher in the ranks, been ingrained in the surface Navy’s command structure. When something happens, junior officers get burned. There is no learning from mistakes—only punishment for making them.
Couple that with tougher tasks than ever. Over the past decade, as a Government Accountability Office study in 2015 noted, “to meet the increasing demands of combatant commanders for forward presence in recent years, the Navy has extended deployments; increased operational tempos; and shortened, eliminated, or deferred training and maintenance.” And to increase the availability of ships for ongoing missions in the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific, the Navy has “home-ported” ships overseas.
But the increased use of these forward deployed ships—which spent twice as much time at sea as similar ships based in the US—has had an impact on the training and maintenance of those ships in particular. In the Seventh Fleet, ships no longer even have a designated period for training. These days some Navy observers suggest the US may have the best equipped fleet in the world, but it no longer has the most skilled sailors driving them.
It’s the same pattern. Extending the terms of older generation, younger generation not getting enough mentorship, and critical bits breaking down when younger generation are put on the spot without enough preparation.
Patterns in our Demographics
The predictive power of this demographic hole is important. Like a warming climate it’s not going to tell you exactly which new super storm is going to hit which state. But it does tell us to expect an increase in:
- Breakdowns in large systems / companies / organizations as the leadership hole prevented the pass down of unwritten rules and important tribal knowledge that kept the system working
- Quick 60 / 40 opinion flips as the lack of gradual pass down of culture caused the younger generation to reevaluate their definition of normal
I just wish that more folks reporting on the events of the day pondered some of these larger factors and forcing functions of history like population demographics.
P.S. That’s just from the disruption of flow of information through population bottle necks. If you start thinking about how opportunity exists when you hit the job market if you are in a dip or peak of the population, that gets fascinating as well. Malcolm Gladwell proposed that as part of the rise of the tech giants in Outliers. While he is always a bit light on research, it’s interesting to ponder.