For the first time in history, American companies now have five generations of employees in the workforce: the silent generation (born 1925-45), baby boomers (1946-64), generation X (1964-80), generation Y (1980-90) and millennials (after 1990). Each generation has its own work culture as a result of the societal mores and the available technology of their time. While all companies are facing the challenge of managing a multi-generational workforce, the insurance industry is facing two additional challenges as a result of its top-heavy boomer workforce and shortage of gen Y and millennial workers:
- The need to attract and develop young people.
- The industry’s huge baby-boomer population that is beginning to leave the traditional workforce.
This interesting conundrum requires insurance firms to find new strategies and modi operandi for optimizing their workforce. They need to figure out what is relevant to each generation. They need to create a culture that motivates each generation. And they must envision how the two bookends — the “young’uns” and the “old guard” — can help each other master the other’s knowledge.
The demographic ground we’re now walking on in the United States is unmapped. According to U.S. Census 2010 data:
- One in eight Americans is age 65 or above. And by 2030, that statistic will be one in five.
- The over-age 65 population is forecast to rise significantly, with the oldest members of the boomer generation now hitting that age.
- People age 55 and older are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.
- America’s young population has zero growth.
The numbers mean that older Americans will be working with (and for) their younger peers in unprecedented ways. But even more important than numbers are cultural and sociological changes that are driving boomers to “retire” differently than prior generations. Boomers want and need to continue to work, but want to work in new ways that provide flexibility. So they will seek more balance. You might say that is not so different from the young population, who want to have flexibility. The challenge is for insurance firms to create a “yin and yang” relationship between these two distinct generations. Co-workers of all ages will need to work together like never before, all the while learning from and supporting each other.
In an insurance culture built on stability and longevity, change is a challenge. Inertia is a barrier. But these demographic, sociological and psychographic trends also present great opportunity.
How do independent agencies deal with all these challenges? The first step is for industry leaders to redefine their concept of the workforce.
First and foremost, what should motivate insurance firms is the proper allocation of resources to meet demands for high-value relationship building (i.e., prospect and customer contact). Being open-minded, firms can understand and value the different ways that various generations build relationships.
Second, insurance firms need to attract young talent and keep older talent. They will need to consider flexible work arrangements. Many talented young people feel they are more productive when they can work remotely, as they are used to taking care of business wherever they are. Many older workers want more flexibility as well.
Third, insurance firms need to create a mentoring culture. One approach would be to pair young staff with more-experienced staff and have them shadow each other for a period of time or even periodically. This will broaden their knowledge, understanding and respect for each other.
Fourth, to meet staffing and work needs, insurance firms will need to take a new approach to their workforce by realigning based on the “right combination” formula: Making sure each job has the right worker with the skills and the right resources at the right moment. This may mean parsing linear job descriptions into high-value work and low-value processing functions, then reassessing staff and matching them to the skills required. It might mean job-sharing. Imagine a 60-year-old and a 25-year-old job-sharing — one doing customer relations and the other using the latest technology to do the support work. Just think of what they might learn from each other.
Every company’s most valuable resource is its people. Industry leaders need to engage people across all generations, sharing and learning from each other, respecting and valuing each other’s differences. Creating a culture that accommodates flexibility, allowing for all types of work arrangements to find and keep the right talent: That’s what it’s going to take to get the job done.
Emek, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Work At Home Vintage Employees LLC (WAHVE), a domestic remote contract outsourced staffing company that works exclusively with insurance firms. Website: www.WAHVE.com.
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