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The Silver Tsunami vs. the Green Wave

In the past few years, many leaders within industry and government have begun to discuss and debate the potential impact of the "silver tsunami." The "silver tsunami," as it has been cleverly named, is the projected mass exodus of knowledge, leadership, and experience that will leave the workforce as millions of Baby Boomers retire. Many of these leaders initiated, led and worked through the past 40 years of environmental advocacy, protection, and innovation.

As these leaders transition out of their formal careers, will the United States lose any momentum behind the "green wave" that has grown in its breadth and consequence throughout government, industry, research, and innovation particularly in the past few years?

Baby Boomers have been thought leaders, designers, and managers of pragmatic solutions as the U.S. has transitioned to a more "green economy." Could the transition of Boomers to retirement implode and crush efforts toward a more sustainable economy?

To remain competitive in a fast-paced global economy we need to be accountable to ourselves and to future generations by taking a hard look at bridging the knowledge gap that could result from this generational workforce transition.

Transfer of Wealth Should be Grounded in Both Financial and Intellectual Resources

According to the Alliance for Aging Research, beginning this year, 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day, "and continue to do so for the next for 20 years." Further, "by 2030, almost one out of every five Americans -- some 72 million people -- will be 65 years or older. By 2050, the 65+ population is projected to be between 80 and 90 million, with those 85 and older close to 21 million."

The implications of the "silver tsunami" are vast, and some impacts are unknown. However, the following generalizations have been raised:

• A knowledge-gap (chasm) has been said to exist between those leaving the workforce (Baby Boomers) and those taking on new leadership roles within the current economy (Generation X and Yers).


• If left unaddressed, the perceived knowledge-gap can lead to unnecessary financial, environmental, human health and safety risks for industry, government, and greater society.

• In a global economy, "knowledge-gaps" brought on by generational transitions can also have an impact on industrial competitiveness. Knowledge-gaps within government and industry can exacerbate challenges the U.S. has in competing globally both in terms of a talented and trained workforce, and a workforce with the knowledge to sustain critical infrastructure.

The greatest transfer of wealth in the U.S. is also projected to occur within this next decade as the Baby Boom generation retires and ultimately leave their wealth to their children, to charitable foundations, or other endeavors. This wealth was created on the backbone of generations of individuals that built the U.S. economy through an era of rapid industrialization.

But, the creation of wealth in the U.S. did not come without some externalities. The environmental impact of our industrialized society was, and continues to be, a core economic and societal challenge.

Trillions of dollars have been reserved by the world's largest corporations and governments to address the clean-up of past environmental liabilities. Wealth creation in the future will be less about clean-up of past environmental liabilities and more about ensuring a balance between energy, environmental, economic, and societal needs.

A cultural, economic, and generational shift is underway where individual consumers and large corporations and governments are now choosing to embrace principles of sustainability as the new framework for conducting daily life. As the Baby Boom generation makes the largest transfer of financial wealth in history, the receiving generations are looking for ways to put that wealth toward the best possible uses. And this new generation of leaders needs guidance!

The modern environmental movement has many trigger points and origins, but many point to the April 22, 1970 marking of the first "Earth Day" as a date of recognition. The Baby Boom generation grew up, influenced, and became the leaders of the environmental movement in the United States, and abroad.

The Baby Boom generation brought the U.S. environmental and energy policy as we have it today, as well as a generation that started environmental management systems (EMS) for corporations; or environmental risk assessments and models for government to base decisions upon; or an ability to incorporate principles of sustainable design and production into the development of new products and services that reduce the energy and environmental impacts of consumerism.

Real or Perceived: The Knowledge Chasm between Generations

In the past five years, I have personally facilitated or attended several executive workshops involving leaders from Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations and one of the prevailing concerns for many is a perceived and projected gap in knowledge, technical understanding, and project management discipline in environmental affairs and issues including the building blocks of the modern sustainability movement.

The chasm, in a nutshell: Many senior leaders in Fortune 500 companies or large federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency share concern that up to 75 percent of their staff is nearing retirement age. When they retire, they will leave behind a large gap of fundamental and institutional knowledge between the Baby Boom generation and those that will fill their shoes.

The gap in knowledge that exists between generations is a generational challenge. This gap can lead to unnecessary financial, safety, and environmental risks. For example in heavy industries like mining, energy, or transport -- gaps in technical knowledge could lead to catastrophic failures in infrastructure or systems that support our modern economy.

If the younger generation does not know fundamentally how energy is created, or have the desire or interest to learn how to work with older infrastructure because it does not have the "sexy or cool" element to it, then we have, as society, a fundamental challenge and huge risk going forward. How can we ensure the infrastructures built 10, 20, 50 or 100 years ago continue to operate reliably, efficiently, and toward societal needs?

The Baby Boom generation built much of our modern infrastructure post WWII. As Generation Xs and Yers take the helm, it will be the responsibility of both generations: Boomers and X and Yers to work together to close any information, knowledge, or technical voids that could result in any real or perceived risks to human health and safety or the environment.

The knowledge gap can also yield unnecessary financial risks and resource constraints. As Baby Boomers set to retire they leave behind decades of institutional history, relationships and experiences that have enabled progress to be made between local communities, state and federal regulatory agencies, and companies can be challenged.

For example, the history and institutional memory of how many environmental liability sites have evolved and cleaned-up has been established by working relationships, often decades in the making. Not that this will happen, but if institutional memory is forgotten or lost, industry and government could see younger generations reliving or reinventing the wheel where agreements and progress had already been made.

This scenario could put constraints on personal and financial resources if Boomers are unsuccessful in grooming the next generation of leaders to take their place.

The knowledge-chasm has been recognized in many industries including chemical manufacturing, oil and gas, transportation, government services, mining and minerals, and environmental engineering to name a few. The gap is being addressed in a variety of ways:

• Attracting new talent;
• recruitment at top universities;
• internal leadership mentoring, development and coaching workshops;
• training days and academies;
• and other vehicles for leveraging the institutional and technical knowledge of Baby Boomers for the benefit of the younger generation taking on new leadership roles.

Addressing "Green" Knowledge Gaps

But amid the concern over the knowledge-chasm, there is hope and opportunity. The younger generation may carry with it a curiosity and naiveté that allows for a new era of open communication and dialog, engagement, and bright ideas to take root.

Generation X and Yers have experienced and think about the world much differently than their parents and grandparents. While the younger generation may lack in some areas, they might make up for it in their approach to learning, decision-making, and problem-solving. The use of social media, for example, has proven to be an incredible force among Generation Yers to communicate and innovate.

While the benefits of social media may not address all of the knowledge-gap needs projected by Boomers, it is one element of how the younger generation can be engaged to learn and to take action.

Fortune 500 companies and governments are not alone in their efforts to close the knowledge gap. While institutional knowledge really needs to come from within a particular industry sector; fundamental and technical knowledge can be learned in other ways. For example, the Golisano Institute of Sustainability (GIS) at Rochester Institute of Technology offers a multidisciplinary academic and research program leading to a Master of Architecture in Sustainable Architecture, or a Master of Science or Ph.D. in Sustainable Production Systems.

The GIS program at RIT has an applied an industrial focus to its programming, thereby growing a next generation of educated professionals that have a balance of both fundamental knowledge and pragmatic experience to come to bear on the social and industrial challenges on industry and government.

Other colleges and academic degree and research programs at RIT have also integrated elements of sustainability into their programming including the Colleges of Business, Engineering, Liberal Arts, and Computing Science.

Like RIT, many other universities across the nation have begun to focus directly on the knowledge-gap perceived and anticipated by industry and government (and broader society) and have revamped, or created entirely new, programs to address this need. As another example of a university taking a holistic approach toward sustainability, Arizona State University offers Bachelor of Arts and Science degrees in sustainability as well as Master of Arts, Master of Science, and Ph.D.

And, still yet, other universities have targeted, industry-specific programs like nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, environmental science and engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, or the University of Florida's graduate specializations in water resources planning and management.

Social and environmental challenges have always been generational focuses. However the impacts of these challenges are being felt and addressed by industry and government with greater intensity than in the past. As global population growth constrains natural resources, and as personal responsibility realigns with financial responsibility in the marketplace, there will be more need for workers that have strong foundational and institutional knowledge, but also tactical and technical experiences that can address these challenges.

Colleges and Universities are taking on a piece of the knowledge gap by simultaneously focusing on serving the needs of industry and society through their academic programming today, as well as the future (through basic and applied research and technological innovation and commercialization).

The Sustainability Generation is About Personal Accountability, Empowerment, and Taking Action NOW

A "sustainability generation" now exists in the U.S. and throughout the world. This "sustainability generation" is not just about Baby Boomers that led the environmental movement or Generation X and Yers that have taken social media to a new era of grass-roots action. The "sustainability generation" is however the recognition that the complexity of our modern society requires the culmination of all generations to take responsibility for their actions, today and tomorrow.

The knowledge-gap in government and industry is a major issue. However, by working together to understand how each other learns, communicates, and engages, Baby Boomers and Generation X and Yers can transition the economy into a sustainable future without fear of unnecessary financial, environmental, or human health and safety risks.

Our transport, communication, water, energy, security, and educational infrastructure are under a transition that involves people, policies, and practices. The people (leadership) dictate how policies (governance and rules) and practices (daily actions) are developed and carried out.

Thus, it is no wonder why many Boomers are concerned about those that will succeed them. Boomers want to ensure the infrastructure they created continues to operate, without incident. The responsibility for ensuring a sustainable future is shared by all generations.

The common denominator across all generations will be personal accountability, leadership, innovation, empowerment and engagement. However, the responsibilities for enabling the transfer of wealth, whether financially or in terms of knowledge, do reside in the accountability of the older generation to do so.

Thus, Boomers need to be a part of addressing the knowledge chasm in the next few years. By leveraging their experience and leadership, Boomers can take an active interest in transitioning organizations, people, resources, systems, knowledge and finances to the younger generation.

And, by doing so in a way that engages and empowers the younger generation to take responsibility -- the Boomers can rest assured that whatever they transition (for better or worse), whether capital or carbon, it will be taken up by the next generation with resolve and a balance of care, courage, and commitment as they would expect of themselves.

At the heart of every social and environmental challenge, large or small, is a requirement for critical thinking, strong leadership, and an ability to make informed decisions. The challenges of the "silver tsunami" are no different.

As the "silver tsunami" makes advances in U.S. culture in 2011 and toward 2020, the U.S. and all nations affected by this generational shift have an opportunity. The opportunity is to make both older and younger generations accountable to ask each other the right questions to ensure any fears and risks associated with this transition are minimized as financial and knowledge resources are transferred.

The following opportunities exist now to help ensure the "green wave" remains an opportunity for innovation and industrial competitiveness.

• Be Accountable to the Knowledge-Gap As individuals and society work toward more sustainable solutions, we will make mistakes. It is how we react to our mistakes, through our ability to embrace a personal accountability to ourselves and future generations, which will make the difference on a more or less sustainable future. This accountability in the context of the "silver tsunami" is recognizing there is a "knowledge-gap", and putting the resources in place to maximize positive and minimize negative impacts.

• Embrace Change & Focus on Opportunities The "silver tsunami" will have legitimate challenges and risks to government, industry, and greater society, particularly in light of the legacy of environmental improvement made in the U.S. since 1970. However, there may also be a huge opportunity. As the Baby Boomer generation transitions to retirement, their needs will be changing. Their generation can be a thought leadership and market force for sustainable products and services in years to come as they align their new lifestyles, financial budgets, and personal time with their core values, desire to embrace change, and perhaps, leadership efforts to train and empower younger generations.

• Tap the Intellectual and Innovation Ecosystem Colleges and universities have begun to realign, restructure, or develop entirely new academic, research, and technological innovation programs and efforts to address "knowledge-gaps" in society. They are also fostering creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative environments that can bridge generations together so that opportunities for knowledge creation and transfer are optimized.

• Collaborate for Competitiveness and Sustainability Ultimately, the "Sustainability Generation" will require the culmination of all generations to take responsibility for their actions, today and tomorrow. Baby Boomers and Generation X and Yers can collaborate to transition the economy into a sustainable future without fear of unnecessary financial, environmental, or human health and safety risks.

Katsushika Hokusai print is in the public domain.

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