Transitions are the key to organizational life. In the career cycle there is an inevitable dialectical pattern where one generation follows another. Transitions can be difficult, especially when transitions are coded as either a signal to an ending or a suggestion of a diminution. As individuals approach the latter point of their career, there needs to be a certain degree of psychological safety--that will be good not only for the individual transitioning but also the organization to assure continuous non-disruptive behavior and the seamless transmission of knowledge.
The leader of the organization sets the tone of the culture of transition. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of leaders, in the tradition of Arthur Miller, see those who are making the transition on the same plane as an orange peel, which elicits the Willie Loman response, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away--a man is not a piece of fruit!" These leaders adopt an autocratic dismissive culture, a perfunctory goodbye with little or no fanfare, with the turning in of keys and badges, and the packing up of things.
Other leaders create a transition culture that doesn't engage in such vigorous detachment, but it is a bit more subtle. The transitional route is isolated, and the person transitioning essentially becomes invisible. He or she is around, but they have lost their voice. In the tradition of General MacArthur, they don't die, but they just fade away.
Still others create a celebratory culture. For these leaders, the word "transition" doesn't mean dismissal or retirement, but is taken seriously. For these leaders, the transition period for those preparing for the exit is one where they have an opportunity to share their institutional knowledge. In this scenario, the well-being of the one transitioning and the welfare of the organization is kept in mind.
The challenge is to create just this type of culture--one where the transition allows the organization to move on and enables those in the latter part of their career to hold on to core dignity. To achieve this, leaders can modulate the transition process by keeping the following things in mind.
Remember their past contributions to the organization. Many older organizational players have made significant ROI for their organizations. A win a decade ago doesn't have to be endlessly trumpeted, but leaders should have enough knowledge of the territory to know who was responsible for the historical wins.
Acknowledge their identity. Many workers, both young and old, identify strongly with their employers. "The office" or "the plant" isn't simply a place they go every day, but it is part of who they are. In some cases, older workers have followed the same routine for decades, and, like it or not, their work is a big part of their life. During the transition, many feel the tug of their identity with the workplace and are working to reconcile their current identity with their future identity, which is not necessarily rooted with the organization. For some it can be a confusing time, and it is important for leaders not to diminish these feelings.
Don't equate age with the ability to acquire new skills. One mistake that leaders make is to assume that the older workers cannot be retrained and that they can't (or won't) learn new things. If the transition is one where people are being pushed out because of technology, don't assume that they aren't interested in keeping up their skill set. Offer them an opportunity to retrain.
Value and encourage mentoring. Many older workers are eager to share what they've learned in the trenches with the younger generation. Don't assume that because they are older and have different habits and tastes then newcomers, that there isn't commonality. Bonus: mentoring can work both ways, and the older ones can learn a thing or two.
Recognize that staffing is not a zero-sum game. In this case, it means that younger people should not be exalted at the expense of the older players, or vice versa. Ideally, the workplace should be home to a range of ages. If the workforce is all old, or all young, there is a staffing problem. There needs to be a sense of succession and planning, of developing and bringing people up. If the older workers are diminished or treated badly, it gives the younger people a reason to look for opportunities elsewhere.
Unfortunately, leaders and supervisors often fail to nurture a celebratory culture. They have a hard time restraining their enthusiasm when talking about the number of people who are moving out and enthuse about the wonderful opportunities for those who will be replacing them. They are so excited about the transition that they fail to recognize the institutional knowledge that is being lost and the sensitivities that are being ignored. Too many of the older generation begin to feel a bit like Willie Loman, and it's everybody's loss.