Filed Under:Agent Broker, Agency Management

War in the Workplace: Learn How to Bridge the Generation Gap

Baby boomers can be a drag on agency productivity—or its biggest asset. It all depends on how management approaches generational cultural differences.

If the term “generation gap” evokes ‘60s-era images of Archie Bunker vs. the Meathead, think again: Generational friction is alive and well in the workplace, and the insurance agency system is rife with it.

The aging workforce is “the biggest risk all businesses face over the next 15 or 20 years,” a ticking time bomb that will cost agency owners money and talent unless they take action to address it, said Larry Linne, president and CEO of Sitkins International, in his NetVU Conference presentation on how agencies can address the needs of aging boomers.

Read related: "Lose the 'Legacy Thinking.'"

When you think of accommodating workers, millennials are usually top of mind. But don’t overlook the role that baby boomers play in the equation—and how their unique approach to work, molded by the times in which they came of age, can blend with other workers, to everyone’s benefit. However, if generational differences are ignored, the resulting friction will end up costing agencies money and talent.

Before the Great Recession, baby boomers seemed to be on track to retire the same way their parents did. Instead, shrunken retirement funds and economic necessity have caused the generation that was projected to retire en masse to hunker down in the workplace for the long haul: a recent USA Today survey of workers 55 and older shows that 76 percent are pushing back retirement, compared with only 46 percent 2 years ago.

Linne cited these trends as driving the crisis:

  • The average independent agency owner is now at or above age 60
  • Organizations in general are heavily weighted toward an older population; recent statistics show that more than 20 percent of the employed population is 55 or older.
  •  The insurance industry has problems hiring new talent, in part because of a poor image
  • The rapidly aging population is driving escalating healthcare costs.

These trends are having some serious impacts on the American workplace in the areas of:

  • Culture. Futurist Daniel Burrus references a “war in the workplace” due to cultural differences between four generations (matures, boomers, GenX and millennials). Because each generation has a different approach to work, collaboration can be difficult. And management is not addressing this, which is resulting in a lack of innovation and costs time, money and credibility, Linne said.
  • Technology ROI. Millennials, the first generation weaned on modern technology, are adept at it, while boomers and older are slower to learn.
  • Rising costs. With more than 80 percent of the workforce pushing retirement back to 70, company healthcare costs will rise—as will the cost of not innovating.
  • Brain drain. When boomers and matures leave a business, they take a lifetime of knowledge with them unless businesses take steps to capture what they know.
  • Perpetuation. If an agency has no succession plan, the business could end up going with the retiring owners.
  • Productivity. Unless it’s managed correctly, the drag on productivity of a “workplace at war” could cost U.S. businesses billions of dollars .

These observations don’t mean that older workers are inferior; in fact, their strong work ethic and institutional knowledge are great attributes, borne out by the fact that unemployment among baby boomers is only 5.9 percent, Linne stressed.

Baby boomers are the greatest wealth accumulation generation of all time, Linne said. They also:

  • Own 80 percent of the world’s net worth and wealth
  • Are responsible for over half of the world’s spending
  • Consume 77 percent of the world’s prescription drugs and 61 percent of over-the-counter drugs
  • Are responsible for 80 percent of leisure travel
  • More than 50 percent say they do not want to pass net worth to their children, but will give it to charity, the first generation to say this
  • 42 percent say they have left formal religion
  • 60 percent have seen a decline of net worth from 2007 to today
  • 25 claim they will never retire.

Baby boomers define themselves by “what they own and what they do,” Linne said. Because of this attitude, many retiring agents and brokers have trouble letting go of what they’ve built. Linne shared an example of a young producer in Florida who is taking over a retiring producer’s book of business. This producer is financially secure and wants to retire, having established a two-year retirement plan—in 2006. Every year since then, the producer announces to his clients that he’s going to retire, and tells them that his replacement is “coming along.” The implied lack of confidence in his successor has caused the retiring producer’s book of business to lose 40 percent of its value over the years, he said. “And the client gets caught in the middle,” he said. “Owners are doing this, too, and it’s affecting clients and the book of business.”

Read related: "New Study Finds the Independent Agency Generation Gap is a Chasm."

Unfortunately, many baby boomers are in “no man’s land” because they’re marginalized in many organizations, which have no plans in place to help them either fit into the workplace or transition out of it, Linne said.

To address the issue, Linne proposed several strategies: 

  1. Make financial wellness as part of your culture. Each workplace generation is facing unique financial issues and could benefit from a financial planner. To add value to his own firm, Linne hired an outside vendor at $5,000 per year to conduct personal finance education for staff. Webinars and individual planning focus on how to reduce debt, investment strategies and more. The resulting financial independence means the employer becomes “less of the answer” to an employee’s financial issues.
  2. Tap into the younger generation. Too often, young employees think they have no voice or power within a company. Linne encourages owners to start young agents groups inside their agencies, where young workers can meet to candidly discuss issues that can turn into suggestion to bring to the CEO. And mentors can teach millennials how to get along with older generations and train them on the value of having multiple generations in the workforce.
  3. Establish health initiatives. An agency can’t afford not to have a wellness program in place, especially with older workers driving the cost of healthcare.  By taking a proactive approach to health with nutritionists, individual health programs, incentives and personal goals, businesses can keep healthcare costs in check and keep workplace productivity levels high.
  4. Encourage purposeful innovation. Create teams of people whose job it is to understand innovation. Blend skill sets: put engineer types together with creatives, operations people, graphic designers and  marketing experts. Blend specialties as well as generations, and you’ll lay the groundwork for true innovation.
  5. Provide adaptation technology training. Everyone learns at a different pace. Take the time to work with boomer employees who may need more time, structure and training to learn new technology skills. Don’t throw them into a learning situation with a younger person if their skills are lagging, or they’ll become resentful and ultimately not learn what they need to.
  6. Provide retirement support. To help ease the transition of baby boomers who want to retire, plan 10 to 15 years ahead. Counsel them, bring in experts, and provide older employees with time off from the job to explore their lives after retirement. Especially with baby boomers, “you can’t leave something, you have to go to something,” Linne said. “Help them find that go-to direction.”


Read related: "4 Ways Documentation Can Prevent Agency “Brain Drain.”

  1. Create retirement agreements—and stick to them. Establish timelines for each employee on when they can retire; designate who does what; establish rules about client communication so the retiree isn’t sabotaging his or her successor.
  2. Provide counsel. Whenever possible, offer employees professional help and support, such as for physical and financial health, and encourage open discussion between generations.
  3. Capture their knowledge. Before retirees head for the exits, make sure the organization is capturing as much of their institutional knowledge as possible. Create a list of questions on passwords and processes that they can answer, consider developing a manual based on their knowledge, or think about filming them on video to create a legacy for the younger generation of workers.






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