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By Steve Kelman

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Changes afoot as GS-15s get younger

I regularly teach in an executive education program for federal GS-15s and colonels that we conduct three times a year at the Kennedy School. Three or four years ago, I had a student who really stood out from the rest. Amidst a sea of 50-somethings, he was under 35, a GS-15 at the Department of Energy.

I had seen people that young in the course on occasion, but they were agency attorneys, who enter the government at fairly high grade levels and can rise pretty quickly to GS-15, sometimes with no supervisory responsibilities. This young man, however, was not an attorney.

He was smart and committed. He came from a poor background and was the first ever in his family to go to college. In a tribute to meritocracy in the government, people quickly noticed just how talented he was, and he had risen just about as fast as humanly possible inside his organization.
Since meeting that participant several years ago, I have been noting a growing number of younger faces -- pepole in their 30s and early 40s -- in this exec ed class. But I think the class going on right now suggests the government is moving towards a tipping point in the generational transformation in the senior ranks of the career civil service. I am guessing that half of this group is younger than 40 or maybe just barely older.
It will be interesting to see what impact the generational transition has for agency management and performance. There are some obvious differences between the young managers and their older counterparts.  Unsurprisingly, they are more comfortable with technology. Half of this current class is on Facebook, and this class (and some other recent ones) has set up class Facebook pages that help participants to stay in touch after the program ends. That has to be helpful in fulfilling the goals of the program, which is to build ties among people with similar interests across agencies. 

In class a few days ago, we had an interesting discussion when I discussed some academic research suggesting that people tend to seek and take advice in online "communities of practice" only from people whom they had already met in the real world. Some of the participants suggested that this might turn out not to be true for new recruits just entering the federal workplace, who are more likely to be comfortable with people they know only from online interaction. If true, that will make these tools more helpful.
What about the drive, innovativeness, and performance of the new 15s compared to those they are replacing? I am hesistant,  without further evidence, to embrace the idea that the new senior managers will be more innovative and motivated than the boomers they are replacing. I'm not saying it's not true, just that I don't really have a basis to draw a conclusion. I do feel comfortable, though, with a weaker claim: At a minimum, they have the same high sense of mission and orientation towards achievement that those they are replacing had. I see no evidence, in listening to young GS-15s, that they are cynical, or uncommitted to the work they do.
Any readers out there who work for a young GS-15 manager? Comments or observations about differences and similarities with the older ones?  What about young GS-15's yourselves? Comments or observations about your expectations, hopes, and anxieties as managers?

Posted on Mar 10, 2011 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 Husband-of-Fed DC region

They don't make GS-15s like they used to, for good or for bad. I'll put my spouse up against any whippersnapper below 35 in policy analysis, managing a staff divison, and thought leadership within the top career staff of a major dept. The younger gen, while better educated and growing up in the govt with a lot of advantages not available earlier, can't show more effectiveness or efficiency or organizational goodness (sic) than the older generation. And judging by comments earlier, this generation seems a bit full of self and, admitted by one, a scoche of reverse ageism.

Fri, Mar 18, 2011 Steve

Hey Steve - Great post. We've seen this a lot with Young Government Leaders. People make the misconception a lot that we are all GS-7 or 9s because we are young and people have a hard time telling the difference between 22, 27, and 34. Lots of the leaders of YGLs are in their late 20s and early 30s and are GS-13 to 15. This is especially true in DC, in policy and IT and acquisition fields. An interest part of this mix is how people change jobs - a lot of my friends have been in government and private sectors and have flip-flopped. Folks like me who left as a 28-year old GS-14 to work in private sector. And folks like Jonathan Bennett who was in private sector for awhile and now is GS-15 in early 30s Now to plug a little bit. Young Government Leaders hosts an annual conference in July called Next Generation of Government ( where we talk about these issues and how young leaders can manage in this changing landscape

Thu, Mar 17, 2011 Amanda Eamich Washington DC

This is a great post and starts a much-needed discussion. As one of these young leaders, I find the opportunity both an honor and a challenge. Manny is right, it isn't easy. You have to manage and cope with reverse ageism, which I find to be a chance at educating and motivating those who work with me rather than a barrier to success. Instead of letting it get to me, I've adopted a thicker skin and even stronger work ethic. It's about building bridges and working very very hard within our organization towards positive cultural and environmental change. A word of caution to other young leaders - you might be scary. Your zeal and "let's get it done" mentality could close off potential partners before you have the opportunity to cultivate a successful relationship or launch the Next Great Thing. I use words and experiences that are familiar to most/all generations and keep the tweet-speak to a minimum - at first. The goal is to discover how you can 'get to yes.' And it might not be the most direct route. I would love to see a greater support network and strong mentoring opportunities as we continue to rise in the workforce as the challenges we face are similar but different than what is often taught in leadership seminars or workshops. My favorite part about being a career civil servant is the look on people's faces when they discover my profession. "You - a fed?! love it?!" Yes, I do. Even the difficult days. Hopefully my love of federal service and passion for the mission transforms me into an ambassador to others who may be reluctant to seek federal opportunities. Please, join us!

Wed, Mar 16, 2011 Steve Kelman

As we teach at the Kennedy School, the plural of anecdote is data, so I'm glad the numbers bear this out. How many years after entering the government do you believe it is possible to aspire to a GS-15 job? Do you feel ready to take the management challenges of being a 15 yet, or not yet?

Wed, Mar 16, 2011 Steve Ander

Prof Kelman, as an aspiring GS-15, I took the initiative to run the numbers for you from OPM's FedScope. In Sept 98, there were 3,345 GS-15s under 40, while in Dec 10, there were 5,216 GS-15s under 40. This is a a 56% increase which is not representative of the larger population because in that same time, there was only an employment increase of 17%. So there IS a trending to lower grades without a doubt.

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