How to Manage Gen U: Generation Unretired

As the recession forces more older workers to postpone retirement, a major shift is under way in the makeup of the U.S. labor pool

Calls for "Tennis, anyone?" are going unanswered. Foursomes on the fairways are few and far between. Retired Americans who thought they would be golfing or shopping with grandchildren are sharpening their tech skills, updating résumés, and scouring job boards instead.

America's recent retirees are talented, innovative and energetic—and millions of them have found that retirement just isn't for them. They're joined by millions more who have realized they can no longer afford to stay retired, following last year's stock market and housing crash.

The AARP says that 8 out of 10 baby boomers will work part- or full-time past retirement age. That's 64 million unretiring Americans, the biggest demographic shift in the American workforce since WWII—and 93% of the growth in the American labor market from now until 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.

Welcome to "Gen U"—Generation Unretired—America's newest, bona fide workforce segment.

To sail through this sea change in the labor pool, managers need to recognize the unique set of opportunities that Gen U presents—and how to navigate any concerns. A major shift in the composition of the workforce such as this requires openness to change, and in this case, a commitment to diversity and greater sensitivity. And that's not for altruistic reasons. It's of tremendous benefit to the bottom line. Understanding the Gen U phenomenon will offer rich rewards for employers and employees alike.

Granted, the high unemployment rate makes any hire seem like a far-off fantasy at the moment. But whether they are hired as consultants, full- or part-timers, as the economy brightens, Gen Uers are here to stay. They are not new, but they have formed a critical mass in Corporate America, and now is the time to becoming attuned to their vast resources.

The First Step: Gen U Hiring Savvy

The most important question being asked by senior management about Gen U is: What can it mean for the company to access this large talent base? But the first step to consider is hiring.

The typical Gen U reentering the workforce is a senior professional with significant depth of experience. Leveraging that experience can put your company at a unique competitive advantage. First, a quick reminder: Hiring managers should be knowledgeable and about employment laws and human resource practices when hiring and working with any "protected class" in the workplace. Gen U often relates to those who are of retirement age—and inquiring about age directly or indirectly, can lead a company straight to the courtroom due to age discrimination.

Here are a couple suggestions for the hiring phase:

• Dig for Gems. Determine Gen Uers' passion and ideal work objectives: How can they can best realize their potential and be most productive? For example, find out what their experiences were during their time away from the workforce; what were their favorite activities, and how might those mesh with your needs. They may have worked as a project volunteer, mentored individuals, or pursued a passion (perhaps in a leadership role) that would lend value to your objectives.

• Team Builder or Solo Flyer? Retirement can be a lonely, and many Gen U workers are looking for team-based camaraderie. Collaboration that makes an impact on the livelihoods of others creates a lasting sense of accomplishment, one that golf or consulting gigs may not live up to. "Manager of the Year" and "Top 100 Company" awards hanging on a retired executive's wall are an example of this.

• Define Roles. How is the former senior vice-president of a multinational going to feel about reporting to a project manager? Your Gen U staff may need to report to others with fewer years of business experience, yet more advanced or specialized skills. While you may not supervise the prospective Gen Uer, it may helpful to engage in some of the interviews so that you better understand the mindset of various Gen Uers.

(You'll want to be sure that your less senior staff is not threatened or that the more senior member is not threatening. It works both ways.)

When you know the real drivers for any hire and abandon any and all preconceived notions, you always maximize your mutual chances for success.

Managing Gen U

Managing professionals who bring a career's worth of accomplishments with them is really about exploring what it is that got them there. Remember that over the course of their careers, Gen U professionals are likely to have developed effective people skills and can model professional, diplomatic, harmonious behavior for those newer to the business world. Here are some tips for managing Gen U:

Play to Gen U's Strengths

Just because Gen U professionals have been away from the workforce does not mean that they have lost their ability to contribute meaningfully to the bottom line. After all, this is the generation that powered the postwar boom and laid the foundation for the Tech Revolution. I have been told by some executives that, "When it comes to stereotypes, Gen U's 'strong work ethic' trumps Gen Y's 'I'm fitting my career to my lifestyle.'"

Some fear that there will be a learning curve in technology for a Gen Uer. But that is as individualistic as a person's résumé. Dedicated Gen Uers may know more about Excel or Linkedin than a baby boomer who hasn't had to face a job cut. But you may be misusing a valuable resource if you lock your Gen U worker into routine, transactional tasks.

With the ability to see the forest through the trees, Gen Uers can complement and mentor less experienced colleagues who may still be sweating the small stuff.

Don't Micromanage

Having left previous careers in a position of seniority, Gen U professionals are used to a certain amount of latitude to manage and organize their jobs. You will maximize Gen U's contributions by recognizing that.

Remember that it's an upside-down world for retired executives returning to the workplace: Their junior colleagues are actually "senior," and they are reporting to managers who have far less experience than they do. As a result, Gen U hires may not be feeling entirely secure about their position. Micromanage them and many may feel particularly boxed in. Give them the benefit of the doubt—and watch what can happen. Often, strategic thinking that is the Gen Uer's greatest asset.

Humanize your Workplace with Gen U

Over the course of a career, Gen U professionals have already learned lessons in office diplomacy that it will take others years to encounter, and longer to learn: How to make others shine, for instance. How to use positive and negative reinforcement to get what they want. How not to push others' buttons. Managers can use Gen U to "humanize the workplace" through mentoring or training workers and modeling positive organizational behavior.

I talk about humanizing the workplace in terms of making it safe for success. Giving a savvy and experienced Gen U team member greater latitude and independence, for example, can have a motivational for the entire team or organization. Gen Uers can demonstrate how passion and innovation can thrive without routine restriction.

Energize the Entire Workforce

In that spirit, mix it up when setting project teams. Use people of diverse experience levels, focusing on what people can contribute. Examine performance and team player ability. Don't assume that the Gen Uers will want to work only with their peers, or that they won't be able to communicate with Gen X or Y—or vice versa. You'll likely get better results.

Keep this in mind, too: Gen U may be some of your most inspired and enthusiastic employees. True, some Gen Uers are forced unwillingly out of retirement. But a Pew Research Center study found that older workers are quite a bit happier than their junior colleagues, on the whole. 54% of workers ages 65 and older said they were "completely satisfied" with their job, compared with a mere 29% of 16-to-64 year olds. "[T]he main reason they work," the researchers found, "is that they want to."

I have counseled of the Gen U who found that the grass really was greener "inside the corporate tower." Comments such as, "Not going to the office anymore felt like death," have not been uncommon. The upshot for Corporate America is that Generation Unretired are likely to arrive in your office reenergized, looking for challenges.

Is your Gen U "Virtually" Comfortable?

Generation Unretired is the first demographic to dive into the labor pool virtually in significant numbers. Many Gen Uers stepped away from the workplace before telecommuting became commonplace for part-timers, temps, and other contractors.

If your Gen Uer is new to the virtual office environment, it will benefit both of you to keep in closer communication initially than with other remote personnel because they have really been out of the corporate scene altogether. Err on the side of frequent, open dialogue, regular phone meetings, and at least occasional face-to-face meetings.

Make sure when you first work with them that you set their expectations and establish ground rules regarding the type, nature and frequency of reporting you expect. Soon enough, you'll both establish a comfort zone.

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