Working Wounded Blog: Revenge of the Employees

One of my all-time favorite reader e-mails came from a new manager who wrote to me and said that when he first started out in his career, his first boss said to him, "It's my way or the highway." So he had to do exactly as his boss said and was treated like "crap." It left an impression.

Eventually, that employee became a boss himself. And quite frankly, as a newly minted supervisor he was looking forward to having employees do exactly what he wanted them to do and treating them like "crap." But no, suddenly there was a talent shortage and he had to suck up to his employees. "When will it be my turn?" he wondered.

The truth is, his time might not be coming for a while.

The key numbers for the U.S. work force for the next 10 years are 76 and 44. There are 76 million baby boomers and only 44 million Gen-Xers -- obviously not enough new blood to fill the void left by those who are retiring or at least thinking of retiring. That means we're going to have to run an economy with 32 million boomers who are starting to think more about weekends and Winnebagos than work.

Unfortunately for the boss who wrote the e-mail above, the practice of sucking up to employees is likely to only increase for bosses and companies interested in keeping their best talent. I've discussed the 76/44 dilemma in past columns, but this time I'm going to explore a new angle: the impact the worker shortage might have on the very nature of the workplace.

There is good news and bad news about the upcoming generational shift. The good news is that there is a great generation of workers out there that is like my daughter Hallie -- smart, tenacious, creative and dedicated. The bad news: My daughter is only 14 years old. The echo boom is many years away from the workplace. And it will take even longer for the younger generation to mature into contributors who can replace the departed boomers.

I know what you're thinking -- that the slack will be taken up by legal or illegal immigrants and workers in India, the Philippines, etc. There are plenty of jobs that immigrants and people in distant countries can do. But there are also millions of jobs that they can't do, such as higher-level management work that requires skills and proximity. For some jobs, such as front-line staff in stores and factories, the workers need to actually be in the room. Without bodies to replace those leaving the work force, we're looking at a major employee shortage.

The shortage is likely to affect both talent and labor, something we only experienced briefly during the dot-com boom years. And it has the potential to dramatically change workplace relationships. As we go from a buyers' market (the employers have most of the clout) to a sellers' market (where employees have more leverage), we'll have a remarkable opportunity to create a better workplace. And, for the first time, we might have the motivation to make it happen.

Attracting talent won't be just a matter of who can throw the most stock and pay at people, like it has been in the past. Now, working conditions will matter more than they ever have.

Call me an optimist, but I believe that corporations will be more motivated than they have ever been to create healthy, sane work environments for workers. Yep, you read that correctly. Companies will actually have to care about their workers' satisfaction.

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