HR Insights
June 26, 2020

A double imperative: The public sector must address the Silver Tsunami and the millennial gap today

The public sector workforce is aging out, but younger workers aren’t vying to replace them. Gianluca Cairo, Industry Principal, Public Sector at Ceridian, explains why this issue needs to be solved for the future of work, and how technology can help, especially in a post-COVID-19 world.

Table of Contents

The choreographed changing of the guards is a long-standing tradition all over the world. It acts as a tangible symbol of cohesion and continuity – a reminder that the institutions that protect, serve, and govern us retain their strength regardless of the individuals who comprise them at any given moment.

But what happens when that seamless transition breaks down?

The public sector is currently facing twin workforce challenges that threaten its own proverbial changing of the guards. The well-known “Silver Tsunami” is upon us as the large cohort of baby boomers retire, shrinking the public sector workforce significantly over the next few years. While the goal is to have tech-savvy millennials fill the void, the public sector struggles to recruit and retain them. While each is a challenge on its own, when you combine them you risk a critical breakdown that will ultimately affect the level and quality of service to citizens.



Passing the torch – but to whom?

Millennials have officially passed baby boomers as the largest living adult generation in America [1]. This segment of the population will comprise 75% of the world’s total workforce by 2025 [2], while all baby boomers will be aged 65 or older by 2030 [3]. This mass exodus of baby boomers from the workforce will have a profound effect on many sectors, especially those that already struggle to recruit younger workers, like the public sector. The resulting gaps in the workforce will have a significant impact on an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.



But even if the public sector can attract the next generation of talent, will organizations be prepared to manage the transition successfully? There is a lot going on in the background that will further strain efforts to manage this generational shift. Unprecedented stimulus spending due to the COVID-19 and a surge in demand for services like postal deliveries, unemployment support, and social services [4] will likely place even more stress on an already taxed workforce. Investing in digital transformation can help organizations build a more efficient workforce with less wasted time and a higher focus on citizen outcomes, while also helping to solve the Silver Tsunami and millennial gap challenges.  



Tackling the double imperative: Three challenges and solutions



Challenge #1: Difficulty attracting and retaining younger workers

Much has been written about the differences between millennials and the generations that came before them, especially when it comes to their expectations at work. While millennials have often been stereotyped as entitled [5], their lifestyle and work preferences may actually lend themselves well to our changing world. One study by Boston Center for Work and College found that the top career goal for millennials is a desire to take on increasingly challenging tasks [6]. In a world where menial, repetitive work is being automated by technology, millennials’ focus on building skills and chasing meaningful work may actually benefit organizations.

One major stumbling block, however, is younger workers’ perception of the public sector. The old stereotype persists of a slow-moving bureaucracy, staffed by dejected paper pushers trapped in a state of inaction by ineffective hierarchies. By contrast, millennials are well known for desiring career development, a chance to use their strengths, and a sense of purpose at work [7]. The gap between what millennial – and Gen Z – employees expect from work and what they believe the public sector can offer is significant. And this challenge is further compounded by the fact that other industries are doing a great job of delivering on what younger workers want. The tech sector, for example, offers its people state of the art equipment, flexibility, and brand cachet. Meanwhile, the public sector’s lagging technology investment [8] could make all three difficult to achieve.



Public sector organizations should consider an investment in technologies that support the workforce a critical part of their recruitment and retention strategies. The right technologies can help align the work your people do to your broader organizational goals and overall mission, helping employees understand the purpose and value of their work. Learning platforms can offer personalized skill building and career development to each employee, improving engagement and retention, and helping to shrink the technology skills gap. Analytics and workforce management tools can help tech-driven millennial managers work smarter, while increasing workforce efficiency to put the focus on serving citizens. Self-serve employee apps help lessen the burden of administrative work and give younger employees the consumerized experience they expect, even at work.

With the right technologies in place, the public sector has the potential become the preferred career path for millennial and Gen Z talent. Few sectors can offer a blend of competitive salaries, job security, community service, and an innovative, modern workplace. If public sector organizations can break through the negative stereotypes and transform the employee experience, they just might be able to occupy that coveted space.

Challenge #2: Loss of institutional knowledge

One of the biggest challenges facing the public sector with the impending “Silver Tsunami” is the loss of institutional knowledge stemming from years of experience on the job that will go out the door with baby boomers. When it comes to optimizing workforce efficiency, having the benefit of history is significant. Take for example planning a new project – imagine the wasted time and cost of exploring unsuitable opportunities or repeating past mistakes when someone could have simply told you what worked and didn’t work last time.

To guard against the lost of institutional knowledge, organizations should work to build a culture of continuous learning, and leverage technology to capture knowledge digitally. Much of the knowledge transfer activity that happens within a culture of continuous learning is done informally. It can happen through mentoring, through on-the-job experiential learning, or through employee collaboration channels. The right technology can provide an online tool to facilitate social learning between peers (i.e. employee sharing forums) and also capture tribal knowledge so that the entire organization can access it.

Planning ahead can also help to capture knowledge from subject matter experts in the form of training modules, videos, and courses – before they retire or leave the organization. A robust learning platform will help to make that content accessible for employees who are planned successors of departing staff, as well as to new hires. Capturing knowledge through technology also helps to ensure business continuity in times of crisis, such as with the current pandemic. It means if an employee needs to step into a new role quickly, they can access the information they need to get up to speed right away.

Challenge #3: Gaps in leadership and critical roles

Organizations will soon be losing a lot of people in senior positions, causing a leadership gap that can have broader implications for employee engagement at all levels. A 2017 survey by the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) found that “leadership and managing change” was the lowest-scoring engagement driver in government, yet it was also the most important driver of engagement [9]. The survey also found that the public sector scores significantly lower for leadership and managing change than the private sector, a reality that could make it difficult to retain top talent.

And it’s not only leadership roles that are stake. There are also senior subject matter experts in mission-critical roles to consider. Many public sector roles – in local government especially – require specialized education and training, making them difficult to replace quickly. According to a 2017 report by Glassdoor, government had the slowest hiring time of all the industries captured with an average interview process of 53.8 days [10]. This lack of agility in filling key roles can have a significant impact on business continuity, and it can also result in overwork and burnout for the remaining workforce. 



One of the key solutions to minimizing the operational and workforce impacts of losing many senior-level employees is to invest in succession planning and management. Succession planning helps organizations prepare for turnover by identifying and developing employees to fill key roles and creating coverage plans to reduce organizational risk and support business continuity. Succession planning can also have a positive impact on employee engagement and retention, as talented employees can see their career trajectory and get support in reaching their goals. The right technology can help automate and streamline the process, allowing managers and HR teams to create talent pools, track employees’ potential and readiness for promotion, and make more informed decisions with access to data on performance history, compensation, and flight risk.

What’s next?

Public sector organizations may be feeling the pressure to postpone technology upgrades during these uncertain times, but investing in the right technology to support the workforce shouldn’t be one of them. The public sector can’t afford to let the gap between it and the private sector grow any larger because what’s at stake is its ability to have the right talent in place to deliver the best outcomes for citizens. The cost of losing long-serving employees without a plan in place to create a seamless transition for the next generation is just too high.


[1] Richard Fry, Millennials Overtake Baby Boomers as America’s Largest Generation, April 2020

[2] How Government Can Be More Competitive in the Race for Talented Employees, Colonial Life, January 2018

[3] 2020 Census Will Help Policymakers Prepare for the Incoming Wave of Aging Boomers, United States Census Bureau, December 2019

[4] William D. Eggers, Michael Flynn, John O’Leary, Bruce Chew, Governments’ Response to COVID-19, Deloitte, April 2020

[5] Joel Stein, Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation, Time Magazine, May 2013

[6] Brad Harrington, Fred Van Deusen, Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, Jeremiah Morelock, How Millennials Navigate Their Careers, Boston College Center for Work & Family, 2015

[7] Jennifer Robison, What Millennials Want Is Good for Your Business, Gallup, March 2019

[8] Melisa Lee, Old Ways, New Days: The Public Sector’s Delayed Adoption of Technological Innovation, Wharton University of Pennsylvania Public Policy Initiative, September 2019

[9] Roberta Lavigna, Government Leadership Gap Leads to Low Employee Engagement, American Society for Public Administration, February 2017

[10] Dr. Andrew Chamberlain, How Long Does it Take to Hire? Interview Duration in 25 Countries, Glassdoor Economic Research, August 2017

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