Feb. 29th, 2016

The President of the Treasury Board has promised that under the Liberals, we can look forward to a new golden age for public service workers. For the sake of our children's and grandchildren's future career prospects, I really hope that's true. They have an ambitious agenda ahead of them; on the other hand, many public servants who have survived a decade under the Conservatives are feeling that almost anything would be better than the status quo!

On May 3 2012, I wrote a piece in praise of formal credentials, expressing the view that in the shift towards competency-based human resource regimes, recruiters were placing undue emphasis on the "soft skills" at the expense of professional knowledge and experience. While I still stand by what I wrote nearly four years ago, it has since occurred to me that there are definitely some soft skills or competencies in which the baby boom generation tends to excel.

The first of these is loyalty, both to the organization as a whole and to one's specific department and work unit. When overwhelmed by bureaucratic red tape and the stresses and annoyances of office politics, we could always shrug and say "Oh well - it's all pensionable service!" Even when faced with having to defend a policy that we didn't personally agree with, we would try to reframe things a bit and emphasize the positive aspects. And because there was such a diversity of types of work in the public service, we could always meanwhile start applying for jobs that were more to our liking, or more in synch with our personal values and ideals. Because when we signed up for a public service career in the 1970s, it really did look as if we would be guaranteed a job for life. Maybe not one with a fabulous salary, but certainly a secure one, where our credentials would be recognized and we would get our annual increments, if not promotions, and have a decent pension at the end of it all.

Supplemental to loyalty was discretion. We would generally refrain from making public statements that related to policies or directives that were still in the works, or were seriously at odds with what our political bosses were trying to implement. In return, as long as we were performing our job duties properly and in good faith, we enjoyed a certain immunity from prosecution or the duty to testify in public fora, via the doctrine of ministerial responsibility and deputy ministerial accountability. This was - and, I would argue, had to be - something that came from within. And of course, public servants' freedom to speak out depended on the level and nature of their jobs! I'm not talking about penning a song about the prime minister on your own time while fulfilling your job responsibilities to study migratory bird patterns during working hours. Nor about those who argued - again on their own time - that metrication was a misguided direction for the government to take, even though the performance of their own job was in no way compromised.

Once politicians, political appointees and senior public servants began to chip away at the founding values of the public service - "downsizing" and "rightsizing" those who had been led to believe their jobs were secure, watering down the doctrine of ministerial accountability, eliminating severance pay, trying to eliminate banked sick leave that had already been negotiated at the bargaining table, and so on - then all bets were off. It's something that our new government will definitely need to address if it truly wants this new golden age to come about.

Another area where I believe the boomer generation excels is in terms of patience, analytical skill, and the ability to take the long-term view. The organization I worked at for the last eight years of my public service career was big on management training. To be honest, I don't think in retrospect that it was an ideal environment for me. But I tried to do my best and play the game as I saw it at the time. During a "learning circle", one fellow boomer participant lamented, "Whatever happened to the days when you just came to work and did your job?" She felt that the new recruits were wanting to know right away when they would be promoted or when they'd get to go to a conference or when someone was going to come and ensure their workstation was ergonomically correct or whatever. In short, they seemed to be preoccupied with everything EXCEPT the day-to-day logistics of their work. I guess these newbies were, in a sense, taking a broader view of their work life - it's just that they wanted their personal medium- and long-term goals to be achieved right now, if not yesterday, and there seemed to be no sense of aligning their own goals with those of their work unit!

All of which brings me to another competency that I believe baby-boomers can offer: that of bridging the generation gap. Boomers have been the eager young pups just starting out and they are also finding themselves in an environment where their skill sets and personal values may be seen as quaint or obsolete. Outside of their work environment, they may well be performing sandwich-generation roles as caregivers to aging parents or other elders, while they themselves are dealing with some of the health concerns associated with aging. While every generation may have slightly different priorities and preoccupations, I would suggest that the baby-boom generation often has a lot of practice in mediating between the various age-groups.

So by all means, let's put in place the conditions that will attract young people to the public service. But let's not throw out the baby - or in this case the older generations - with the bathwater. We need a diverse workforce that will represent the range of values and priorities of our national mosaic.

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