12 Days of Trends: “OK Boomer” Will Edge into the Workplace

We’re counting down to 2020 by sharing 12 days of emerging workplace trends! Learn what trends our top global contributors are most excited to see evolve in the new year. 

Trend 4 of 12: Young leaders are going after roles that once sat at the far end of a very long career. We can expect to see something similar in the workplace.

Image via Time Magazine

Climate activist Greta Thunberg doesn’t mince words. “I want you to panic,” she told the CEOs and world leaders attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” For her staggering ability – at age 16 – to rouse governments, throttle business leaders, and galvanize her own generation to address climate change, Time magazine recently named her 2019 Person of the Year.

Thunberg is emblematic of a trend that seems to be playing out in business and government as well: the emergence of articulate, committed young leaders, too impatient with the status quo to politely wait for the older generation to hand over its power.

One day before Time revealed that Thunberg topped its annual list, Finland’s Parliament elected a new premier: 34-year-old Sanna Marin became the world’s youngest head of state. And in 2018, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Congress. In fact, the average age of the 116th Congress’s new members was a decade younger than the average age of the previous Congress overall. (In terms of gender and race, they were also significantly different.)

Young leaders are nudging—and in some cases, shoving—the old guard out of the way, going after roles that once sat at the far end of a very long career runway and hell-bent on tackling the problems that their predecessors have not.

We can expect to see something similar in the workplace. It’s already happening at large, long-established companies trying to remake themselves for the digital economy. In the past, high-potentials rose to the top based on what they knew. They had the answers, skirted risk, and made the decisions. They advanced in an orderly process, guided by their companies’ many-tiered succession plans.

But digital transformation changes that, according my research for The Conference Board. Curiosity and the ability to learn are critical leadership strengths, rather than knowing all the answers. Cross-functional teams must be empowered to make day-to-day decisions, rather than directed from above. This increasingly democratized workplace requires leaders that are transparent and open to questions and alternative points of view.

Many of today’s executives don’t fit that profile, which is why companies are swapping out their leadership teams. Some members are replaced with younger talent: not 16-year-olds like Thunberg, but up-and-comers who have successfully led the company’s digital business line, for example, or external candidates recruited from “born-digital” companies or from organizations that are ahead of the curve on digital transformation.

Digital transformation is just one of the forces that will drive companies to lower the average age of their executive teams. There’s also the demographic reality: the generation that follows the Boomers is much smaller, which could necessitate shortening the runway to senior leadership. Companies with younger leaders may also be more attractive to job candidates. With the growing pressure on companies to address social, political, and economic issues, an infusion of younger, fresher blood may help them rethink their broader impacts, much as Thunberg has done.

As a boomer, I lived through the social movements of the 1960s and 70s. We, too, were driven by a passionate fervor for change. Yet I am awestruck by the skills with which today’s young activists have earned entrée into the highest seats of power and, once they were in the room, refused to keep quiet. Look for the same thing to happen in the workplace, albeit it at a slower pace.


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