FCW Forum | Workforce

Get a Life: Experience matters

Despite the stereotype of older federal employees as behind the times, recalcitrant and – perhaps most importantly – ready to retire, age and experience still count for a lot.

Think of Stump, the Sussex Spaniel who recently won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Stump is 10 years old, not exactly youthful for a dog. But you could see his confidence and his calm and steady gait. He had been champion five years ago and came out of retirement to do it again. It didn’t hurt that he had a good manager and good grooming.

At a time when the population is aging, Stump gives us an example of what an old dog can do. The example is particularly pertinent to government, where the average age of the workforce is approaching 50. Agencies have been recruiting heavily in anticipation of a coming flood of retirement announcements, but the current economy might be altering expectations.  

Many federal employees with 30 or more years of service are planning to stay in their government jobs awhile longer. The prospect of an uncertain economy and rising unemployment in the private sector makes staying in a federal job a more attractive choice.

Perhaps a floppy-eared dog named Stump can make us think again about the value in having the strengths and talents of workers who have years of experience. One of those strengths is institutional memory. That doesn’t mean dredging up old tired ways of the past. Rather, it means ensuring that any new methods are enhanced with some knowledge of pitfalls, based in part on understanding what has come before. There is also something to be said for knowing where all the bodies are buried, as the old saying goes.

Many articles tell us that the baby boom generation sets high standards and works hard to reach them. Boomers aim for quality. They also enjoy face-to-face communication, albeit in more formal, top-down ways than younger workers may like. Still, they know how to give feedback.

Boomers also gain from learning in more formal settings, such as classrooms. Today, younger workers, known as millennials, learn from resources on the Internet, such as wikis and blogs. But take a note from Stump and consider that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Baby boomers are blogging and millennials are getting mentoring and coaching much like in a classroom. Today, all generations are starting to find the benefits of change.

Although styles of generations might differ, fewer clashes are happening at work. Boomers are finding that while some millennials can present challenges, they bring important benefits, not the least of which is an ability to navigate change. What Stump shows us is that an older dog has a steady sense of purpose, and that, even in a new ring, experience does count.

About the Author

Judith Welles is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md.

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Reader comments

Mon, Mar 2, 2009

Stump didn't learn any new tricks because the show is the same as it was five years ago. The government can't operate that way. This is not to say that the old dogs can't do new tricks. It means that us older govees must be willing to change and work to make the change successful using our experience to help, not hinder. Prancing around, obeying orders, and looking good isn't enough.

Tue, Feb 24, 2009

I agree 100%! We old-dogs can still lead the pack. You brought up one particular sore point with me, Wiki. It's a good source of information, as long as you don't use it for anything important! I always get these young Turks putting information that they have pulled from Wiki in official documents. Not surprisingly a lot of it is pure garbage, written by individuals who really do not have a clue as to what they are talking about. You can also see spelling, punctuation, and general writing errors in Wiki documents indicative of the education level of the writer. It's a kind of Ebonics of erroneous information for the web.

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