Gen U – Generation Unretired – Humanizes The Workplace

By | January 13, 2010

Topics covered: , , , | 8 comments, join the discussion!

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the “unretired” – seniors who are returning to the workforce in droves for economic or personal reasons. I call this formidable group “Gen U™” because they represent an astounding number of people who have a completely different mindset from that of prior retired generations. Thankfully, smart companies are beginning to embrace their value, wisdom and experience.

In fact, even those who had plans to retire will not. A recent study by the AARP revealed that eight out of 10 of the 80 million Baby Boomers will work part- or full-time rather than retire. Those 64 million “unretiring” Americans will constitute the biggest demographic shift in the American workforce since Baby Boomers emerged.

The reasons Americans are returning to work in record numbers include, first and foremost, economic demands triggered by the deepest postwar recession, but also such factors as boredom, wanting more camaraderie, mental stimulation or a sense of purpose. Gen U laid the foundation for the high technology revolution and challenged the status quo of business in the 1960s. Now, they are challenging what we traditionally knew as “retirement” — to the benefit of progressive organizations.

Granted, we’re in the midst of high unemployment, and this is a difficult time for more entrees into the workforce. But as the rebound emerges, more companies will seek a wide range of talent, as well as a healthy age mix that is more representative of our society. (An interesting report on this shift is at

Consider the sheer numbers alone. Currently there are:

• 80 million baby boomers
• 46 million Generation Xers
• 78 million millennials (Gen Y)

A Few Key Facts

Gen U’s contributions reside not only in their skills sets garnered over many years, which can be passed onto Gen X, Gen Y, and Baby Boomers. They have also learned a thing or two about people skills — something often lost on today’s frenzied, high-tech workplace. These facts further underscore that this shift is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

1. 93% of the growth in the American labor market from now until 2016 will be from workers 55 and older [because] new estimates show the average retired couple may need more than $300,000 in savings to live comfortably and pay off late-life health care costs. [Source: Pew Research Center.]

2. Only 20% of retirees now feel very confident they have enough money to live comfortably throughout their retirement, down from 41% in 2007. [Source: Employee Benefit Research Institute.]

3. 36% of those 56 or older are still working — more than ever. That’s more than twice as many as in 1984 [Source: 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.]

4. 9.5 million Americans are considering at least a partial return to the workforce because of the economic downturn. [Source: Charles Schwab Corporation.]

The Challenges

Companies and members of Gen U alike can tap into this opportunity and mutually benefit – through understanding, effort and by abandoning stereotypical behavior. Hiring managers must be savvy about age discrimination laws at all times, but particularly when working with Gen U – as early as the interview stage.

In general, there must be sensitivity to unproven myths and how they manifest themselves, not just for the sake of productivity, but for human decency as well. Similarly, a work veteran of 45+ years who reports to a 30-something with specialized skills may find it challenging. But the Gen Uer, but must treat him or her, too, with respect.

A Win-Win

This shift can certainly be a win-win. Gen U is can be an educated, energetic and rededicated group of individuals — many of whom are taking online courses to upgrade their skills. These returning seniors add numerous assets to the workforce:

Experience: The typical Gen U reentering the workforce is a senior professional with significant depth of knowledge. Technology and other tactical skills can be taught, but there is no substitute for experience.

Interpersonal Intelligence: Human relations skills are perhaps the most valuable skill a person can have in this increasingly high-tech world. They are hard to teach and aren’t developed overnight. Being an “office diplomat” is often developed over a lifetime of work.

Virtual Team Availability: Global companies have employees scattered throughout the world who must work with many cultures, diverse beliefs and work styles. Skilled project managers with years of organizational and time-management experience can help keep team players on track and productive.

Mentoring: The workforce benefits by being able to tap into a Gen U’s area of expertise as mentors who can pass along shortcuts to growth and success.

Part-Time or On-Call Access: After the recent economic crisis, more companies are eyeing the benefits of having workers there when you need them. Gen Uers benefit from having a flexible schedule that allows them to work around their other activities or financial needs.

Smoothing Over the Rough Edges

Today’s need for a humanized workplace can be well served by such timeless, valued traditions as business etiquette and diplomacy — tenets of business practices applied more extensively in the heyday of the Gen Uers. These skills are the antithesis of what I call Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT) behavior where non-savvy bosses and co-workers can wreak havoc in the workplace and diminish company’s profits.

With age often comes an ability to see the forest for the trees and put pettiness aside. Perhaps Gen Uers understand well the meaning of Bonnie Raitt’s lyrics in “Nick of Time”: “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” At work, they can see the larger picture, adding Gen-U-ine value to enlightened companies.

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8 Responses to “Gen U – Generation Unretired – Humanizes The Workplace”

  1. Lynn and Melanie…what a timely and well-written post. Having both parents and in-laws who are in their 60s and 70s (and all still working), I know from personal experience that their motivations and needs as workers are vastly different than those of their younger peers. If integrated skillfully, the contributions of “Gerneration U” can be enormous.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Lynn Taylor says:

    Thank you, Paul (and Melanie for this opportunity). It’s great to get such thoughtful firsthand feedback. Gen U is here to stay for quite some time… lucky us!

  3. mostinterested says:

    “Generation Unretired” definitely offers a great value in the workplace. The older generation has precious experience and all those important qualities Taylor mentions here, and younger employees need to be exposed to that and given an opportunity to learn from Gen U. I’m familiar with Taylor’s approach to managing “Terrible Office Tyrants” and in my company, where I’m a HR manager, I see that our Gen U employees are excellent role models for interpersonal skills. We need those people in the workforce, and Lynn Taylor is doing a great job in raising awareness of this social phenomenon.

  4. Iowa Manager says:

    First of all, compliments to people running the Respectful Workplace web-site, dedicated to a very important issue. Feeling respected and appreciated makes people more productive. In my subdivision, I work hard to instill the culture of mutual respect and support – or, as Taylor puts it, to humanize the workplace. I like the phrase.

    Second, I’m glad to see the older generation being discussed here. I’m in my mid-60s and I waved an opportunity to retire due partially to economic reasons (recession!), but first and foremost because I love being with people, sharing my experience, being an important part of the whole. Our management is doing a great job of accommodating seniors who wish to return to work. People are valued for their experience and skills, and Gen U has a lot to contribute in this respect. As a society, we should be aware of the Gen U phenomenon and make the most out of it.

  5. Lynn Taylor says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I have also found that in corporate America, Gen U employees are often fantastic mentors. They are an underutilized segment in today’s workforce, and yet they enable companies to cultivate a more diverse, productive and profitable workplace.

  6. Ms Anderson says:

    Thank you for pointing out that there are negative stereotypes, mostly false in my opinion, when it comes to Gen U. As a manager within a middle-sized company, I have found that generations like to help each other and motivate each other. However, it has been my experience that multi-national companies are better at hiring across the board and are more aware of age discrimination than smaller companies. Let us hope that more insightful blogs, such as this one, gets the message out that today’s workforce needs to have more age diversity in order to mirror society at large. No matter how techno crazy we all become, experience is the best teacher. Thank you for your great site.

  7. Blake Anthony says:

    I can see why this is a favorite post of Respectful Workplace. It’s insightful and well-stated. There is nothing like experience when it comes to solving problems and/or dealing with people from different countries.

  8. Jay Remer says:

    This is a very timely and well written article. Were I an alien from another planet, I would think Gen-U would be prime employees, mentors, etc. Common sense does lead one to that conclusion. Experience confirms this as well. But then again, I am from another planet!