The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Frances Kunreuther

Recent Posts by Frances Kunreuther:

Where Do We Go? A New Career Narrative

Reprinted from Opportunity Knocks

Over the past decade, nonprofits have increased their interest in developing leadership as well as attracting and retaining a skilled work force. One motivator has been alarm that the aging baby boom generation will retire from the workplace during the next decades, creating a labor force gap particularly in leadership. But things have changed during the past two years. The nonprofit sector has been hard hit by the recession with organizations cutting back. At the same time, older employees are deferring retirement, both for financial reasons and in order to continue to contribute. Now the concern is focused on whether there is room in organizations for younger generations eager to make a contribution to the public good.

This dilemma highlights a more general problem. Boomers in nonprofits as in other sectors assumed that they would have a 35-year work trajectory. But the reality is the work trajectory for us and the generations that follow is closer to 50+ years.

The good news is the Baby Boom generation is living longer and healthier, their minds are active, and they have a lot of experience to share. But the bad news is few have actual pension plans, and many will not be able to financially sustain themselves if they leave work at age 60 or 65. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the 55+ age group will be the fastest-growing generation in the workforce over the next decade.

Long-term leaders in the nonprofit sector receive little help in how to rethink their work as they get older. This can create a situation where they stay in their current positions because they cannot see other options. Now is the time to consider how the sector can offer long-term employees options that allow them to continue to contribute their experience, skills, and passion in their own or other organizations without staying in their current jobs. There has been emerging work in this area – such as Jan Masaoka's "The Departing" and Mark Leach's "Table for Two." But more research needs to be done to offer real options to Baby Boomers who are in the sector as they age.

One place to start is to create a new career narrative. The myth that the Baby Boom generation will be retiring at 65 should be replaced with a new story about the possibilities that lie ahead. What are the ways Boomers can contribute? When can we afford to take less demanding (and not as high-paying) jobs? What kind of retraining and continuing education will we need to stay current in our fields?

Here are some ways we might start.

  • Reshape the ladder.
    We tend to think of a career as an upward trajectory where people climb the ladder to their top position and then leave the organization and workforce. A new career ladder might be more like a bell-shaped curve, where earning and positional power peaks and then diminishes again, creating a life in the workplace after achieving the top rung.
  • Think about lattices.
    Nonprofits are for the most part more like small businesses than corporations. That means movement within an organization is limited by size and resources. A career lattice is a way to think about moving across organizations and sectors. Someone might be a full-time nonprofit employee, a part-timer, a consultant, or they might move into government or a for-profit venture.
  • Get lean, mean, and multigenerational.
    Nonprofits can take advantage of tough economic times by restructuring operations in ways that intentionally attract, retain, and integrate a multigenerational workforce. Where do fresh views about the future and deep experience produce the best results? How can we build these cross-generational spaces into our work, and what will be the impact on how we run our organizations?

A new career narrative means we have to think differently about the future. Instead of a linear path, it will be more like a journey where the unexpected can happen and directors are change. And it is just beginning.

Frances Kunreuther
© 2010, Frances Kunreuther. Reprinted from Opportunity Knocks; reprinted with permission.

Frances Kunreuther directs the Building Movement Project, which works to strengthen U.S. nonprofits as sites of democratic practice and advance ways the nonprofit sector can build movement for progressive social change. She is co-author of From the Ground Up: Grassroots Organizations Making Social Change and Working Across Generations: Defining the Future of Nonprofit Leadership. Frances is also a senior fellow at the Research Center for Leadership and Action at NYU and spent five years at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University.