By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

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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