I have been in what some people would call a “generational rock and a hard place” for the last few months. I am a young person in the foundation field and one of my passions is helping young people learn how to advance in the philanthropic sector but one of my professional duties at the foundation is managing a project on older adult civic engagement. A big piece of this project is figuring out how to keep baby boomers in my community engaged as they begin to retire or change careers. Talk about competing priorities. On one hand I know how important it is to keep baby boomers engaged, on the other hand I am hearing from young people on a daily basis that they can’t advance because baby boomers won’t leave the philanthropic sector and make room for young people to advance. I have finally realized that this isn’t an “either, or” proposition. Baby boomers at foundations and in the nonprofit sector as a whole have great expertise that they contribute to the field but they have created positions for themselves where they work 80 hours a week and refuse to take vacation (or sick days for that matter), with the idea that “this whole place would fall apart without me”. Young people want more responsibility but would also like to have a life outside of their job. There are lots of explanations for why this is but one of the most probable that I have heard is that Gen X was raised as latchkey kids and saw the family sacrifices that their parents had to make to slowly climb the career ladder. They also saw their parents lose their pensions in mass layoff and Enron scandals, so they know that the old paradigm of work hard for the same company for 40 years and retire is no longer realistic.
What if a new way of working was created that still kept baby boomers engaged but allowed them to reduce the number of hours that they work so that they could keep health benefits and stay involved in a career that they love? What if this same new way of work allowed Gen X the flexibility to spend time with their families or take on a second job (to pay down the massive student loan debt that so many have)? If we started thinking of the program officer position (of any other foundation or nonprofit staff member for that matter) as a collection of tasks that can be completed by one or many people depending on the time available for each worker. How much more effective would a foundation be if instead of one program officer, they now had three sharing that same 80 hour a week position? The foundation would now have 3 times as many connections in the community, 3 diverse perspectives on how to solve social problems, and 3 great ambassadors for the foundation’s work.
What refinements (or significant changes) do you think are needed to create a foundation workplace that is supportive for multiple generations?