January 30, 2023

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Studying business science

The Juniorization of the American Workforce

A friend of mine, Tom recently commented on this obvious trend. At 51 years of age, Tom works as an IT (1099 form) consultant for a medical tech start-up. Tom shared recently that he had just come back from a reunion with his friends from high school. Many of those Tom referenced had been in leadership positions in large companies, and had followed long and distinguished career paths to attain their career objectives. So, Tom saw it as more than a coincidence that the only individuals currently employed among his friends were those who were self employed / owned their own businesses. All of the individuals in Tom’s group who had risen through the ranks of corporate America were currently “displaced due to circumstances.” It doesn’t take a lot of looking around to see this phenomena infiltrating the lives of an entire generation.

The contemporary application of the noun “juniorization” references the “elephant in the room.” It’s the now common practice of “displacing” senior employees who “don’t have as much runway left.” This is HR speak for an illegal practice engaging in age discrimination through a strategic deployment of rationalized hirings, forced retirements, displacements, and firings.

The fact that there haven’t (yet) been a rash of age discrimination suits, doesn’t mean that the problem hasn’t reached a crisis state. It only means that these illegal practices are difficult to prove. Exiting employees are extorted with severance packages that have been significantly vetted in terms of fiscal financial savings for the company. Either you sign, agree to keep your mouth shut, and accept what you’re being offered, or you take the boot, and face a long and expensive litigation process.

Even as you read this article; HR teams are working feverishly to provide proof that they aren’t employing juniorization practices. They will publish lists of displaced employees that illustrate the age diversity of the individuals who are about to join the ranks of the unemployed. Although, there’s a pretty good chance that the company will turn around and rehire younger staffers in newly defined positions, or replace the displaced senior staff with “more economically favorable” options including outside “1099 form consultants,” and less experienced, and cheaper employees.

Hiring Managers are strongly discouraged against hiring teams of older individuals – even when the senior employee candidate has a particularly advantageous history as a leader, or as an innovator.

There is no denying that senior employees may not be as technically up-to-date as their rising-young-star counterparts. But, that’s not an acceptable (or legal) reason to put them out to pasture. They still have a lot to offer in terms of historical knowledge*, and leadership** (more on that in a minute).

An interesting analogy can be drawn from the definition of juniorization provided on the web site ‘BrickWiki which is a wiki intended to cover all aspects of what is coming to be known as the LEGO hobby. ‘BrickWiki defines juniorization as:

“A term used by Adult Fans of LEGO [AFOLs) to both describe and criticize the inclusion of a few highly specialized elements in sets instead of already existing elements that could be assembled into the same configuration. A BURP (Big Ugly Rock Piece) might be considered a juniorized element but it is more common to refer to pieces such as which is simply an element that reproduces five of stacked together.”

The ‘BrickWiki continues: “The major complaint is that the use of juniorized pieces reduces the possibilities to build alternate models, a cornerstone of AFOL activity.”

So, as the Lego analogy portrays: companies are dismissing senior employees who have finely honed, specialty skill sets, and replacing them with cheaper, younger employees who have less evolved, but more diverse skills. As analogized in the Lego world, the employment of the less specialized, less senior employees will eventually result in long term organizational shortfalls in flexibility, and adaptability.

*Historical knowledge is something in which those employing juniorization processes are placing no value. They are willing to forfeit years of experience for short term savings.

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

• Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

• Edmund Burke

**Leadership isn’t a talent that can be taught in grad school. It is an acquired skill set. And, guess what. Not everyone has the propensity for leadership, That’s why it takes years and years to vet good leaders. So, throwing less experienced employees into the management pool to see who sinks, isn’t the best leadership development process. It will result in the loss of valuable talent through burn out and frustration.

The term juniorization is not a new one. In an October 2004 article in the Columbia Journalism Review (“Letter From Johannesburg: The Trouble with Transformation” by Douglas Foster in Cape Town, S. Africa) the term was credited to the online source: Double-Tongued Dictionary as:

“n.- The survey spawned a terrible new word: juniorization. It covers a multitude of sins. When more experienced reporters left the profession because they were traumatized by covering the political violence that swept the country in the 1980s, or crime or AIDS in the 1990s; when talented reporters get snatched up at double their salaries by government or corporations as spinmeisters; when someone gets promoted beyond his abilities, and even when a reporter gets a story wrong, “juniorization” is the one-size-fits-all label used to shame newsroom denizens without mentioning explicitly that most of the “juniors” are black.”

So, the term juniorization has long held a negative connotation. But, the contemporary issue at hand is threatening an aging populace that is already struggling to set retirement plans with no promise of social security subsidies.

A recent blog entry on theSkimm defined the term Juniorization as: “The term for why your office happy hours keep getting rowdier. It’s when a company fires older employees to replace them with younger ones. Because 40 is the new 30 is the new 25. Is the new not so legal.”

In theSkimm ‘s coverage, they referenced an article from Business Insider entitled Wall Street is gripped by something called ‘juniorization,’ and it is freaking some people out in which the practice of firing senior traders and salespeople and replacing them with younger talent was cited as a major cause for concern. But, this trend which has been recognized in the financial services world, is not confined to that sector.

None of this is meant to put the full blame for these juniorization practices on the Human Relations professionals. Obviously, these directives are coming from a higher level. But, the level of complicity being exercised by the HR folks is amazing. They are smiling in the employees’ faces and kicking them in the ass on the way out the door.

The days of working for one corporation for your entire career are at the endangered level on the extinction scale. But, don’t show me a rat and call it a puppy. You might be “just following orders,” (think war crime trials) but don’t tell us that you’re making fair and non-discriminatory business decisions. Because we’re just not that stupid.