Last month, my friend and former colleague, Jeff Neal, wrote a column/blog expressing concern that the federal workforce is aging and the number of under-30 employees is dropping. Neal noted that employment of folks under 30 peaked in 2010, with 239,000 of the 2.1 million federal employees being in that age group, and 225,000 being 60 or older. Since then, he writes, the number under 30 has decreased while the number 60 and older has increased. Those age 30 and under now make up less than 8 percent of the total.
I agree with Jeff that the Congress and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) need to take steps to address the problem. But we need bold ideas to bring to them. I saw Kung Fu Panda 3 with my son recently. It contains a number of life lessons, like the one dispensed to Po, the borderline-obese panda turned dragon warrior, by his mentor Shi Fu, the panda version of Yoda: “If you only do what you can do then you’ll never be more than you are.”
So here is my “modest proposal” for consideration by the new president, a new Congress and the next head of OPM: Provide early-out authority across government, to encourage the remaining baby boomers to retire from public service.
What? Why do such a counterintuitive thing? Because, despite all the graphs and trend lines promulgated by credible private and public sources, the average age of government employees continues to increase. And while employee loyalty and staff retention rates in the federal government can only be envied by the private sector, a changing of the guard is long overdue.
Again and again, at conference after conference, when we are asked what the government needs in order to change, the answer is not new legislation, or regulation, better systems or another presidential initiative — although all are important. The common answer is, “We need to change the culture.”
And to change the culture, we need to change old thinking, old ways of doing business, old management styles. We need to change many of the senior people.
It is time for them to go.
It is time for them to go so that a new generation can take root and begin to lead the government to a more mission-oriented, solution-minded, enterprisewide approach to current challenges.
Look at the characteristics of three of the four generations currently in the workplace, leaving out the traditionalists — also referred to as the “silent generation” — born between 1925 and 1945. Here’s a quick summary from Ron Alsop’s The Trophy Kids Grow Up:
Baby Boomers (1946-1964) – Workaholic, competitive, loyal, materialistic, seeks personal fulfillment, values titles and the corner office;
Gen Xers (1965-1979) – Self-reliant, adaptable, resourceful, entrepreneurial, technology savvy;
This new generation is more open to information sharing and collaboration. Many of these new recruits will be first and second-generation Americans; many will be women and minorities. Again, this is an opportunity to embrace multiculturalism in a connected, integrated, federal government community.
The next president will face great challenges. The budget pressures will be immense. But of equal importance is the fact that this will require a 21st-century government, a transformed on-demand government — responsive, resilient and flatter, more connected, seamless and more transparent.
Alan Balutis is a senior director and distinguished fellow with Cisco Systems’ U.S. Public Sector Group. He is the chairman of the Standing Panel on Public Service at the National Academy of Public Administration and spent 28-plus years in public service.