I’m on vacation in Madrid. I was here once before for a short visit earlier this year to lead a workshop for a couple of friends I knew in Buenos Aires who have opened a coaching school here. This time I am able to just relax and take some time to get to know the country a bit better. It always amazes me how the first few days of every holiday are spent ‘shifting gears’ and adjusting to another context and pace than we have in our ‘normal’ work life. It dawned on me yesterday that this is a mini-experience of what we encounter when we retire. We move from a fairly intense, externally stimulated, action-filled environment to one that is wide open. If there is any action at all, we have to generate it ourselves.

There is a lot of concern these days about the wave of Boomer retirements. A couple of my clients are becoming more than a little concerned that they may lose as much as a third of their managerial workforce in the next 3 to 5 years. It isn’t surprising and the demographic data has been predicting a kind of mass exodus for some time. Now people are waking up to the fact that we have a small window of time in which to prepare the next generation of leaders to take the helm.

It isn’t that these clients (and I surmise a lot of companies) don’t have succession planning as a priority. They do. The problem is that the planning is all based on assumptions about the time required for younger leaders to grow and develop. In today’s reality, younger leaders are being promoted at an accelerated rate and the developmental process is either being ignored or forgotten. I think this is a strategic issue, especially for large bureaucracies because the next generation of leaders will be in charge for the next 15 to 20 years and however they are prepared will influence what they will do. If they lack the depth and maturity that normally comes with time, we will have a lot of ‘technocrats’ in key positions where we need wisdom, ethical sensibility and compassion.

I’ve spoken to people in Europe and South America and learned that this is not a problem unique to North America. It is a problem in most of the developed nations. When we are looking at roughly a third of the planet being of ‘retirement age’ in the next 15 years, we cannot afford to bury our head in the sand. Aside from the fact that the next few generations will be on the hook to pay some form of pension for the older population, the world is also facing unprecedented social, environmental and economic challenges. These challenges require the best leadership we can muster from everyone from every age. No one knows how to deal with what we are already dealing with—let alone the mass of intractable problems that appear to grow almost daily.

In the Eldering Institute’s Passing the Torch program we launched last week in Ottawa, we made the point that we must change the ingrained cultural expectations that older leaders ‘know’ and must mentor and teach the young what they ‘need to know’. Instead, we should acknowledge that both generations have something to offer in the larger leadership context and we must learn to collaborate in new ways to ‘co-create’ the future.

I don’t think that we are facing a doomsday scenario, and I don’t think we are likely to stumble into a golden Age of Aquarius. But I do think that without brilliant, competent and inspired leaders, we, as humanity, will continue a slow drift of increasing ‘dis-ease’ and suffering until eventually our quality of life will deteriorate to an unacceptable level by any reasonable standard.

If this last sentence sounds like what some people might say about getting ‘old’ in our contemporary paradigm of aging, it is. The alternative is to create the future we want to have—starting with our own lives, expanding to our communities, then reaching out to our world.

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