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War I

(September 05, 2006) We really liked Collin Kingsbury's perspective (in last Friday's article). He raised serious questions about whether or not there really is a talent shortage. We've been toying with the idea that the War for Talent is nothing more than a sales pitch. Collin's views prompted us into action.

You probably know that we're preparing for a presentation at the OnRec Conference in Chicago in early September. The conference itself promises top be very interesting. It's a new entry on the calendar brought to you by a British crew. It's a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to reframe many of the creaky old ideas around our industry.

Our presentation, Multigenerational Recruiting, focuses on the problems that hiring bias causes in workplaces that contain members of the four generations currently at work. That's forced us to dig down deep into the demographic data and to question our fundamental assumptions. Anyone who reads this page regularly knows that we hold the idea of demographically driven talent shortages dear.

So we're looking at our most fundamental assumption. Let's go patiently.

There are two graphs in this article. The first one (Figure 1) shows the way that population is distributed by age in lesser developed countries.  The second (Figure 2) shows age distributions in more developed countries. The graphs are based on data from United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision (2005). One (less developed countries) resembles a pyramid. The other (more developed countries) resembles a telephone pole.

The United States, Western Europe and Japan comprise the Developed Countries. In those places, population growth is flat. There are basically as many old people as there are young people and middle aged people.

(Collin is sort of right when he notices that the US has a fertility rate that is ever so slightly above replacement levels. It's caused by Utah. Any meaningful population growth in the US is a function of immigration.)

Figure 1 Population Distribution in Less Developed Countries

The less developed countries have a pyramid shape to their age distributions. The so-called "developed countries had age distributions shaped like pyramids about 80 years ago. As women become more educated and participate more fully in the workforce, the number of children per family drops and the pyramid starts to resemble the phone pole.

It's not surprising that the historical model of management featured "senior" leadership who controlled large numbers of younger workers. It's a perfect way to run an enterprise when older workers are in short supply and there is an abundance of younger workers. The hierarchical (pyramid) organization has its roots in historical demographics. We used to be a pyramid so a hierarchical approach worked.

It was a perfect world view with which to invent Social Security and Pensions. Lots of younger workers to carry a few older retirees.

Telephone pole distributions imply governance by merit and participation, a flatter organization with work being executed by all age groups.

Figure 2. Population Distribution in more developed countries.

Much of the dust up about talent shortages has to do with the difference between these two graphs. Many of the cues in our culture suggest that a hierarchical approach is prudent and optimal. This is vestigial thinking from an earlier era. We're carrying forward the organizational and hiring biases of our ancestors. It should be no surprise that the big consulting firms are carrying this message. More than any other form of organization, they are hierarchical.

While we haven't even come close to answering the core question (Is There Really a Talent Shortage or a Need for a Talent War?), this article is a great lead in. We've tried to show that historical perception is one of the underlying factors in the perception of shortage.

John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.
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