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The Silver Tsunami’s Silver Lining

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By April Townsend
February 15, 2019

Imagine being told you will lose up to 40 percent of your agency’s resources within the next five years. Once the initial panic subsides, you learn this statistic is an estimate of those who are eligible to retire. You have heard about these pending retirements before and you know not all who are eligible will leave. Nevertheless, your initial sigh of relief is quickly followed by the chilling realization that there could be several in your organization who will choose to retire, some of whom are currently in top leadership positions.

Researchers and popular media have labeled this mass exodus a silver tsunami, and it continues to be a significant workforce concern for the public and private sectors. While the loss of institutional knowledge certainly creates cause for concern, it also creates opportunities—if you know where to look.  

Consider the Collective Endgame

In a broad sense, the goal of public administration is to competently and responsibly use public authority to achieve good governance. As public sector leaders, we conduct our business in a setting that, by its very nature, is more visible to public scrutiny and oversight while adhering to the bureaucratic controls set in place by legislative laws, rules and procedures.

We realize the outcomes of government are often noneconomic by definition and can be difficult to measure. In an effort to mirror the market indicators used by the private sector, we’ve adopted performance measures and tracked outcome data. Unfortunately, those indicators offer us little in the way of providing a useful framework to understand what leadership looks like. So where do we turn to inform our definition of leadership? 

What Leadership Looks Like

We may start by looking to our own organization and identifying specific individuals in leadership positions and listing their admirable skillsets.  This exercise of looking to current leadership provides an interesting picture, and may help us realize that rather than asking what leadership looks like in public administration, perhaps the more relevant question is who leadership looks like.

If one were to take a physical snapshot of current public administration leaders, it would be predominantly male. Employment data for the public sector shows that men hold a significant majority (70 percent) of executive leadership positions, while women remain concentrated in lower paying levels of the organization.

In 2011, a report by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board acknowledged women are less likely than men to be employed in high-paying occupations and supervisory positions.  Although women have comparable education, work experience, and performance ratings, they, “Remain under-represented at the highest levels of pay…as well as in supervisory and executive roles.” This trend is particularly disheartening when you realize that the federal government is considered to be on the leading edge of diversity in the workforce.

Opportunities to Develop Our Future Leaders

This brings us back to the silver lining of the looming silver tsunami. Mohamad G. Alkadry and Leslie Tower, authors of the book, Women and Public Service, acknowledge that, “The public sector today faces a great opportunity to capitalize on the many retirements that are scheduled to occur over the next decade in order to correct the imbalance in representation across government’s many levels, agencies and occupations.”

Addressing the current gender inequity in our leadership ranks is not just an “HR issue,” it is an organizational issue. Those in positions of leadership within every government agency can send a powerful message by acknowledging the benefits of having a diverse workforce at all levels of the organization. They can enhance this message by ensuring practices around employee recruitment, retention and training provide equal opportunities for qualified women to advance.

Promoting the Voices and Experiences of Women

Recent national discussions have contributed to a heightened awareness of the importance of listening to the voices and experiences of women. As we look to our future workforce and the need to fill vacancies created by this silver tsunami, we can take intentional action to develop and advance women—particularly women of color—in our executive leadership teams by: 

  • Being aware of how gender impacts the career experiences of women.
  • Promoting an environment that intentionally recognizes the contributions of women.
  • Encouraging top leadership to model mentoring and sponsorship of women.
  • Committing to create a tipping point with women in leadership.
  • Ensuring equal representation from women and men on hiring panels.
  • Nominating women for awards and recognition to ensure their work is considered alongside that of men.

Although not every woman wants to be a leader, those who do should be given the chance. As vacancies occur, whether as a result of retirements or other causes, agencies can commit to supporting the advancement of qualified women into leadership roles. Using more of the workforce as a potential pool for future leadership not only increases the organization’s ability to navigate the loss of institutional knowledge, it also helps the organization retain high-potential employees. Ultimately, it sends a powerful message to women in the proverbial pipeline that their contributions are respected and valued.


Author: Dr. April Townsend recently retired from Salt Lake County government after a 30-year career where she held top leadership and management positions and focused on organizational effectiveness, financial accountability, and strategic leadership. Since retiring, she’s pursued her passion of researching and writing about leadership development, particularly for women in government organizations. She can be reached at [email protected].

Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to The Silver Tsunami’s Silver Lining

  1. Jo Reply

    February 19, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    Excellent point, and one that I would hope all organizations would keep in mind through the upcoming transitions from their aging workforce.

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