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The Maturity Gap  

By Jim Bowles 


The war for talent concerns so often cited in just about every business publication in 2007 and 2008 have been rightfully reframed as a skill gap issue today. 


With the pre-retirement crowd wondering how long the "pre" will last and a 10 percent unemployment rate looming on the horizon, the challenge of retooling existing talent to meet the demands of the post-recession world is job No. 1 for strategic-minded talent leaders. 


Unfortunately, it also may be time to throw yet another challenge into the anxiety closet - the emerging maturity gap. 


Actually, the maturity gap is not really emerging. It's just been partially cloaked under a broader, more familiar talent management heading associated with demographic descriptions. You've undoubtedly heard of them: Generations X, Y, etc. Many talent leaders have jumped on generational distinctions and have piled on a wide array of sweeping generalizations related to work ethics and personal values, rather than focus on the developmental side of the equation. 


There is interesting and compelling research around the lagging maturity, as in emotional maturation, of 20-somethings in the workplace. The essence of studies I've read is that we are likely to see the maturity gap continue to widen, as there will be a delay in the natural developmental progression to adulthood. In fact, it may be argued that many in the Gen Y demographic simply have not progressed through the required developmental stages generally associated with becoming autonomous adults, stages defined by professor Jeffrey Arnett as "emerging adulthood." Arnett and others found this latent transition into adulthood is likely occurring well after this generation has graduated from college and been hired into full-time positions. It may even extend beyond promotions to supervisory roles within their respective organizations. 


While the focus of his research is primarily on males, in his provocative new book Guyland, Michael Kimmel paints a sobering picture of some of the behavioral baggage associated with his postponement of adulthood and details how popular culture continues to perpetuate this phenomenon. According to Kimmel, "Guyland lies between the dependency and lack of autonomy of boyhood, and the sacrifice and responsibility of manhood." 


One of the many explanations for the maturity gap lies in the de facto influence and power of popular culture, amplified significantly by rapidly evolving technology. Deferring marriage and having children until later in life is an associated trend. 


Most important, talent leaders also must recognize the behavior, attitudes and beliefs we often attribute to young workers may not be a permanent Gen Y state of affairs. The maturity gap theory creates a different explanation for these differences, which should be considered. Some of what we are experiencing can be attributed to the fact that we have young adults entering the world of work who are still in a postadolescent stage of development, trying to understand what it means to be an adult. 


One would anticipate the maturity gap would play out in workforce decisions ranging from career and lifestyle choices to ethical and behavioral choices. Perhaps the best and only option for talent managers is to be aware of emerging adulthood as a transitional stage and contemplate its potential implications for selection, workforce planning, employee engagement initiatives and learning strategies. 


If the new "formative years" are ages 21 to 30, the world of work should be a place where a great deal of learning, experimentation and limitless testing will be played out. 


Understanding how far young employees have progressed along this maturity curve may be a key, necessary and tricky element of talent management strategies in the future, especially as it relates to high-potential selection or early career promotions into supervisory roles. 


Further, if the maturity gap issue is as pervasive as proposed, and adulthood is not fully realized until the late 20s, what emerging adults learn in the world of work may influence the formation of values that govern how they ultimately function in society at large. This is not a responsibility talent managers typically contemplate, but like it or not, it will continue to influence our world. 



[About the Author: Jim Bowles is a practice leader for BTS USA Inc. He recently retired from AT&T , where he served as vice president of workforce development for the Wireless division.]