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Cue the music from the movie Jaws. It’s out there—it’s coming right toward us, and it could impact local government and its citizens as much as any other challenge that today’s cities and counties face.
The “Silver Tsunami” is a borrowed term we’re using to describe the pending retirement tidal wave of California’s and the nation’s local government managers. This pending crisis isn’t talked about outside of industry circles, but the frightening fact is that almost two-thirds of America’s local government managers are at, or within, five years of retirement age, and there are simply not enough experienced people ready today to fill the coming vacancies.
According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), in 1971, only 8% of the nation’s local government managers were over the age of 51, and 66% of the managers were between 30 and 50 years old. In 2012, though, the situation had become very different: the 30 to 50 age group now represents only 35.3% of local government managers, while the 51 and older group has grown to 63.3%. Yes, that’s right: almost two-thirds of all the city managers could retire soon—as in tomorrow.
How did we get in this mess? The simple answer is lower birth rates. While the numbers vary from study to study, most agree that the Baby Boomer generation (those born 1946-1964) numbered about 80 million, while Generation X (those born 1964-1980) topped out between 45 and 50 million.
Based solely on the difference in size between the generations, an employment gap would have been anticipated.
But this story is about more than just numbers. It’s about change: changes to local government and changes to how we citizens view and value our government; changes to how we view public service and how those changes might have impacted career choices and career paths.
Knowing that this “Silver Tsunami” is going to hit soon, we’ll spend the next couple of articles examining the factors that contributed to this crisis, including past and present efforts to restore and maintain an age-balanced management workforce.
Maybe we can start by Blaming President Kennedy, who went and inspired an entire generation of Baby Boomers with phases like “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country.” President Kennedy challenged the young generation to seek fulfillment in service to their communities. Public service became a cool thing to do.
Governments in general, and local government in particular, were the beneficiary of an influx of highly skilled, highly motivated individuals looking for a career where they could make a positive impact on their communities.
However, as Baby Boomers settled into their careers in local government, there were always challenges to be met and signs of changing times.
The passage of Prop 13 in particular signaled a time of significant change for local government. It wasn’t just the change in the revenue stream of cities and counties: Prop 13, the “taxpayer’s revolt”, was one of the first signs that a growing vocal group of citizens were not only questioning government policy, but also the very role or need for government.
The call to the noble cause of public service in government was being replaced by politicians saying that government isn’t the cure—it’s the problem.
Generation X, unlike their Baby Boomer predecessors did not have the same opportunity to be moved by stirring call to service like President Kennedy’s, but instead were exposed to a different political thought. Maybe a career in local government wasn’t the best place to give back to one’s community. Maybe community action was best expressed in the non-profit world. Maybe government should focus on providing core services and nothing more. Maybe becoming a “government bureaucrat” didn’t have the same appeal it once did.
Could a popular political dialogue have changed the employment patterns for an entire industry? Did a generation of city managers, infused with a passion for public service, not recognize that their younger co-workers might have viewed their jobs differently? Did senior management and elected officials not consider the possibility that a formal succession plan might be a prudent thing to consider?
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