Solving for the Growing Workforce "Donut Hole"

I recently attended a thought-provoking presentation about the future of work by futurist Jim H. Lee. During the presentation, he referred to a growing workforce condition he calls the “donut hole,” a situation that has been created by the desire and need for aging Boomers to work longer. As Boomers stay put in their positions, Lee explained, there is little room left for Gen Xrs to move up, so instead they move on to other jobs or start their own businesses. Meanwhile, younger new hires from the Millennial generation, while capable, still lack the experience, skills, and information that one acquires over time. While Millennials still get up-to-speed, Lee says the gaping hole left by the exodus of unfulfilled GenX workers will cause a lot of “organizational amnesia” in the years ahead. Coping through the growth of this donut hole means that “everyone will be living just a little closer to the edge.”

This donut hole problem really resonated with me, probably because of my focus on reinvention, and I feel like I’m seeing or hearing evidence of this “living on the edge” in an even more magnified way.

Not All Boomers are so Lucky

Jim Lee’s conclusions about Boomers staying in the workforce longer concurs with research I’ve previously found. In my February 2015 piece, “5 Common Conditions of Career Reinvention,” I cite similar findings from a Stanford Longevity Study. But Boomers, too, aren’t necessarily staying put in their existing jobs. Many choose to leave and start their own businesses, and a 2014 study by Merrill Lynch found that more than half of pre-retirees have already expressed an interest in pursuing a different line of work prior to reaching full-time retirement.

All this insight, however, refers to Boomers who are still fortunate enough to have a job and who can make choices about whether to stay in their current role or leave. On the flip side, however, I see Boomers who have already been downsized or laid off and who therefore have no choice. These Boomers – and others over the age of 50 -- find themselves living even closer to the edge of the donut hole. For those who choose to seek another job rather than strike out on their own, they find a rude awakening. Why?

  • The job market and finding employment isn’t what it was 25+ years ago when they may have last sought a job;
  • The job finding and application process has been completely disrupted by the Internet;
  • There are many over the age of 50 who have expressed to me they feel victims of ageism, and that their opportunities for new employment are extremely limited.
  • Many of these displaced Boomers suddenly find themselves working the gig economy, a situation they’re ill-prepared for. And, unlike gig economy-engaged Millennials doing so by work-life balance choice, these Boomers are not at all happy to be “Giggers.”

If other Boomers have heard similar concerns expressed by their contemporaries, no wonder they’re holding onto their current jobs for dear life. And of course, to Jim Lee’s point, this leaves less opportunities for GenXrs to advance their careers either so they’re more apt to leave, too, and so the donut hole grows bigger faster.

A Solution

Somehow, this problem seems ripe for a solution, and I can’t help but be reminded of the situation I faced nearly 20 years ago when I founded my last company, an online advertising and marketing agency. Back then, there were literally zero people educated or trained in online marketing and advertising. If I wanted to grow my business, I realized I was going to have to train my workforce from the ground up. Knowing that I would stand a better chance if I at least could tap into a collective of people who were already online and familiar with the Internet, I decided to source stay-at-home mothers who were active on Internet mommy message boards and discussion lists. I created training modules and went about recruiting, qualifying, and teaching online marketing skills to women who were eager to be able to make a living from their homes. I called this new workforce “My Mommies,” and I went on to win a prestigious award for this at-the-time groundbreaking virtual workforce solution.

So, when I now encounter all of these extremely talented, experienced, motivated, and yet displaced and struggling older workers, I can’t help but think, “Wow, they would really be useful in companies suffering from organizational amnesia caused by a growing donut hole. How can we re-apply this pool of human capital’s skills in new and advantageous ways?”

I believe there’s a way, and since I tend to be action-oriented problem-solver rather than a prognosticator, I’ve gone to work on this. I am excited about the possible solutions that lie ahead.

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