Opportunities to Advance

It is relatively well-documented that workers no longer expect to be able to advance within a company, and therefore stay for shorter time than they would like to with a given employer. This is an interesting article about the trend. It basically states that Millennial workers (and probably those if us who are Millennial adjacent) want opportunities to advance, and if they are not available, workers will leave the company/organization. While there are a lot of trends about Millennial workers that are not flattering, wanting the opportunity to advance (the opportunity) is not a negative, per se.

Retirement delays on the part of Baby Boomers are aggravating this trend. Gen-X and Gen -Y workers are not able to advance, leaving few opportunities for entry-level  and mid-level job seekers to find new opportunities. Within organizations, this breeds resentment and frustration, especially when older workers can’t or won’t learn new skills. In 2009, Theatre Communications Group discussed the issue at its conference in a session called “If I Ran the Zoo” that dealt with the topic extensively, trying to create a dialogue between the entrenched managers and the emerging leaders in the regional theater.

I have worked in for-profit and non-profit contexts, and interviewed for job in the past six months, where I have been told, point-blank that there is no opportunity for advancement from the job I was in (or would be in). I have worked for organizations that have expressed policies not to promote workers, but rather to retain them for a specific number of years and then send them out to other institutions with an amazing skill set. I have also been promoted in every “real” job I have had (from freelancer to full-time employee, or from temporary to permanent employee, but impressive nonetheless, right?!) so my frame of reference is a little skewed. I have been told by several managers and mentors that in the arts, the only way up is out. In small arts organizations, this does seem to be true. But it disregards the value of institutional knowledge and does not reward loyalty in its employees. On the other hand, there is little patience on behalf of younger workers, whose ambition and hunger for opportunity can cause them to look down at managers whose work-style and conception of productivity might be different from theirs.

Truthfully, there is no substitute for experience. The instincts that are honed and the connections created over time in a given field are priceless and should be valued. But then, how are younger workers supposed to develop those contacts and test their ideas if they are never allowed to design or implement programs and initiatives? This struggle is dangerous. I think it actually does a disservice to both parties. I once read that the Hewlett Foundation has eight year term-limits for all its senior staff and program officers, in order to keep new ideas flowing. I love this idea and I think it could be implemented effectively in a variety of organizations, though it is particularly important in the philanthropic context. I also  think there are ways to recognize and support younger workers that don’t involve traditional promotions, but rather expanded portfolios, one-off projects, small raises, title changes, and other incentives.

There is this amazing scene from Mad Men in the episode “The Suitcase” in which Don and Peggy have a fight about her desire to advance and be challenged by her work, but also her desire for recognition:

Don Draper: That’s how this works. I pay you for ideas.
Peggy Olson: You never say ‘thank you’.
Don Draper: That’s what the money is for!

Is it wrong to hope for a little more? Or that really all you get until you are in charge, whenever that might be?

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