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Succession Planning

Why Your Workforce Is Unhappy, Unproductive, And Disengaged

Labor Day in the United States has become synonymous with BBQs, vacations, and back-to-school shopping sprees. As you crowd around the grill or the mall today with family and friends, consider your own labor situations. Are you happy at work? Are the people you lead also happy at work?

Labor Day in the United States has become synonymous with BBQs, vacations, and back-to-school shopping sprees. As you crowd around the grill or the mall today with family and friends, consider your own labor situations. Are you happy at work? Are the people you lead also happy at work?

Labor Day evolved during an era of incredible tension in our nation. During the last two decades of the 1800s, workers carried out some 37,000 strikes in the United States – largely because the workers weren’t being treated fairly.

For example, workers for the Pullman Company, a railcar manufacturer, went on strike after their wages were cut by almost 30 percent, but the rents and prices at company-owned accommodation and stores remained static. The strike was backed by other unions, and a total of 125,000 workers on 29 railroads quit working. The federal government sent in the military to enforce a court injunction against the strike, leading to riots resulting in 30 deaths and $80 million worth of damages.

The workforce situation may seem to be vastly improved since Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894. However, data proves otherwise.

Consider these stats:

·  Less than one-third of U.S. employees have been engaged in their jobs and workplaces during the past 17 years (Gallup)

·  In the U.S. only 32 percent of employees are engaged – involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace. Worldwide, 13 percent of employees are engaged. (Gallup)

·  In 1987, 61 percent of workers said they liked their jobs. Since then, job satisfaction has been on a steady decline. Today, only 49 percent of employees are happy at work. (Conference Board)

·  The Shift Index studied the performance of 20,000 U.S. organizations between 1965 and 2016. It shows a general picture of performance decline over the 51 years. Despite a soaring stock market, in 2016 the rate of return on assets (ROA) of these firms was only one quarter of what it was in 1965. In other words, profitability declined by 75 percent. (Deloitte)

·  U.S. employers are losing $30.5 billion annually to employee turnover. (Gallup)

The bottom line: Employee engagement and profitability have been declining since 1965 and turnover is skyrocketing. Why is this happening? Because our leadership is aging, our management practices are failing, and the gap between executive-level and entry-level talent has continued to widen.

History is repeating itself. We may not have riots breaking out nationwide, but workers are still ‘striking’, either by quitting their jobs or becoming increasingly unproductive and disengaged.

The fact is, this is a crisis that we, as leaders, could solve ourselves, because the crisis stems from organizations and their cultures. Quite simply, the workforce crisis is the result of an ever-widening gap between the Industrial Era 20th century-managed organizations, and the Post Industrial 21st century-raised workforce.

In the 20th century the economy was fueled by natural resources and structured by hierarchy. Now, we’re well into the 21st century, a talent-driven economy characterized by knowledge, innovation, globalization, mobility, and customization—but too few organizations have shifted away from 20th century workforce practices.

With a 21st century generation now composing the majority of the workforce, employee turnover has accelerated and the workforce crisis has worsened. For organizations to succeed, several factors need to be modernized and addressed, including the relevance of people and profits; changing demographics and evolving definitions of work; leadership ability and cultivation; future planning; and talent development.

Labor Day was designated a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and wellbeing of our country. My concern is that a day of tribute isn’t enough. As a nation, we aren’t dedicating nearly enough time and effort towards resolving our workforce issues.

Every membership association, business, government entity, and nonprofit needs to own this problem and make it a priority to resolve it. Because without talent, we have much to lose. Without talent, we have no purpose, no future, and no hope. Without talent, society fails.


We must put an end to the workforce crisis and make work work again. Then, and only then, we will be assured that we’re each doing our part to contribute to the strength, prosperity and wellbeing of our country.

Sarah Sladek is author of the just released book, Talent Generation: How Visionary Organizations Are Redefining Work and Achieving Greater Success.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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