The Generation Gap in the Public Sector and what to do about it

“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so. “ Douglas Adams English author and comic

In my previous blog I spoke about the article entitled “Generation Y Challenges the Public Service,” by David Eaves which offers some interesting food for thought Eaves leaves the impression which is entirely justified that the public sector is frustrated by the dominance of Baby Boomer’s.

Angela Majic in her recent article The Public Service: a Generation X Perspective responds to Eaves article in “Optimum” and argues that so were Gen Xers before them, who faced the additional challenge of trying to break into the public sector job market during the deficit-slashing days of program review. But Baby Boomers have something that Gen Yers (and Gen Xers, for that matter) do not have. It’s called experience.

She points out that, “Going to school longer is not necessarily the same thing as being better educated. While one cannot deny the benefits of formal learning, and the fact that educational qualifications are crucial to being able to function effectively in a knowledge-based economy, experience can be a great teacher. At the risk of restating the obvious, people who are older have more experience.” She goes on to say that “We can choose to complain about that, or we can take the opportunity to learn FROM the “organizational memory” or “corporate memory” that the Baby Boomers possess. We can choose to waste the next 25-30 years of our careers by re-inventing and re-discovering things that already exist. Or, we can learn FROM those who came before us, and improve and redesign things, so that systems, institutions, laws, regulations, etc. function better for us, our children and our grandchildren”

As someone who retired from the public sector a few years ago and who is now working as a consultant to the public sector, I do agree with this perspective. As former Newspaper Editor Samuel Smiles once quipped “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”

The old proverb “Experience is the best teacher” is something we all know but sometimes forget. We seem to think that older or experience managers are old fashioned and are not up to speed with the new ways of doing things, especially with the new technologies that have emerged in the past 15 years. But they forget that new technologies, as great as they are, are no replacement for experience.

Angela also suggests in her article that different generations need to learn from each other and have better two way communications. “Only through a genuine dialogue that respects the abilities, knowledge and talents of all parties can we hope to bridge the often mentioned, yet seldom understood, “generation gap” in the workplace. In the process, senior employees may discover that their tech-savvy junior colleagues have solutions to long-standing information management and information flow problems, or that complex problems might be addressed after they are analyzed FROM a new perspective. Concurrently, junior employees may benefit FROM the mutual discovery that the wisdom that one gains FROM experience is something that can be passed down.”

Finally on the issue of corporate memory, which is a major problem in the public service with many managers retiring, her comments are very timely “Too often, valuable information is packed in a box of old files, stuck in an old day timer, erased FROM a hard drive, hidden in a box of floppy diskettes or left on a non-descript flash drive to be forgotten when someone retires. The work does not stop, however. Consequently, a new person coming on board has to learn many things FROM scratch.

How often do we see people retire or leave their public sector job after many years and with them goes all their corporate knowledge? As Angela points out, “The knowledge accumulated by senior public service employees is too valuable to the people of Canada to be dismissed to the dustbins of history. The citizens of Canada deserve better.”

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