Too soon old, too late smart… Passing the Torch in the Public Sector

“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

In a 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 Boomers.

With the baby‐boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) reaching retirement age there will be an increasing number of vacancies in the federal public government workforce. While labeling the situation as a “crisis” would seem like an exaggeration, this mass exodus of labour from the workforce does have the potential to cause significant challenges for the federal government. Source

Angela Majic in an 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.  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  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 or she who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.”

It’s called experience. Yes that very overlooked attribute. Pilot Veteran flier Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III maneuvered the US Airways Airbus A320 jet around New York’s skyscrapers and pulled off an incredible landing on the water. The plane – flight 1549 to Charlotte in North Carolina – was apparently hit by a flock of geese only minutes after take-off from LaGuardia Airport. New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the pilot: “The first and most important thing is that this pilot did a wonderful job, and it would appear that all 155, including crew and one infant, got out safely, “We’ve had a miracle on 34th Street. I believe now we’ve had a miracle on the Hudson,” said the Governor of the State of New York, David Paterson in a press conference. Sullenberger, known as ‘Sully’, not only landed the plane masterfully but walked the length of the plane twice to make sure that everyone had been rescued.  Sully saved the plane because he  had experience.  He has been flying for more than 30 years, six of which he spent in the US Air Force behind the controls of F4 Phantom fighter jets. Sullenberger knew what to do on January 15, 2009, because he had thoroughly thought through the process long before he was called to land in the Hudson. He had many years of experience.   Some pundit on CNN suggested that before the “Miracle on the Hudson ” if Sully tried to seek employment with another airline he would be screened out because he was too old . In other words he had reached his “best before date”

“You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world.” –William Hazlitt

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 Majic suggests in her article The Public Service: a Generation X Perspective 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 nondescript 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 Majic 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.”

Experience is that marvellous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again. Franklin P. Jones

I would be interested to hear from those who are recently retired or getting close to that date .

3 Replies to “Too soon old, too late smart… Passing the Torch in the Public Sector”

  1. Well I’m not about to retire, but I do appreciate the message here. I have been through corporate take-overs where important people with key intellectual property were let go. The result is the same, the brains and experience walked out the door. Without a great way to foster a learning environment the ones left behind start again instead of building on great ideas, time and money. This is an important message so I hope they are developing a solid plan to migrate, warehouse, protect and capitalize on experience. You are a great example of that Jim and lucky for us you are patient, willing and eager to share your wealth of experience. I hope many will take this inspiration and make it happen in government and the many other organizations facing the same attrition.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and yes I hope many will take this inspiration to leave behind a tangible legacy that the next generation can pick up and run with. Here’s hoping.

  2. These events are actually a cycle of what had happened to the corporate world decades ago. Those who did retire were like treated as “old school employee”. The new ones obviously want to try new methods in solving problems not knowing that those who had left had already solved the problems themselves. Its a very disappointing to the corporate world out there not to have solved this kind of practice. They think that they had solved old problems and thus hire new employees to solve another problem which is actually the same problem solved by those old employees. Nice informative post, thanks.
    Sherman Unkefer

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