They called it “Space Cowboys”, like the Clint Eastwood film in which a group of elderly astronauts are called back into service for a special mission. It’s the perfect name for the Daimler (Mercedes) programme to promote the return of a hundred pensioners to the company in order to take advantage of their skill and experience in particular areas of the group. Another 390 have been lined up for other needs, so it’s “make way for the elderly” in Germany. And not just at Daimler, but also at Bosch and Otto, and other companies are likely to follow. “Specific knowledge and know-how was at risk in information technology, in the launch of new products, and in taking on particularly challenging foreign markets such as China,” Wilfried Porth, head of human resources for the Daimler group (with 275,000 employees), explained to the media, and while it’s true that young engineers and technicians have particularly advanced high-tech knowledge, the elderly, with years of experience in the company, in research, and in marketing and sales, possess an extraordinarily sophisticated wealth of know-how for which the company feels it has a great need. So it’s an interesting decision and one to be pondered carefully and with an open mind.
The powerful German automotive trade union, IG Metall, has already expressed its disfavour, saying that it takes opportunities away from young people and worsens the generation gap, but German companies seem to want to pay close attention to the results achieved by the Daimler and Bosch programmes.
These developments in Germany should probably be looked at differently from the traditional generational conflict, avoiding the old-vs.-young stereotypes that are fine for daytime talk shows, but irrelevant to the evolving complexities of job markets and the culture of enterprise.
We can, for example, consider the fact that, as the “knowledge economy” comes to the fore, skills acquired throughout years and years of career in the industry should not be lost, lest we waste significant chunks of intellectual and social capital. We should be studying forms of organisation and employee relations that promote new hires being coached by their elders, pensioners with renewed purpose, teaching young employees through on-the-job training. Former engineers, technicians and senior factory workers passing on their practical know-how to new hires with their high-tech training. A hybridisation of viewpoints. A cross-fertilisation of cultures and attitudes. And the benefits are many. The elderly can cost relatively little (with the lower salaries for part-time or temporary work and no social security withholdings); young people can learn their craft without being afraid of the “generational bottleneck”, and the workforce as a whole strengthens, all of which makes for a complex, virtuous passing of the torch from one generation to the next and a forward-looking use of human capital.
A crucial feature of society throughout the twentieth century (promoting values in the workplace, social inclusion, education of the general population, the alignment of rights and duties, and great tension and conflict that led to new equilibrium in labour relations and to innovations in manufacturing and in society as a whole), the factory can also be a place in which a new form of “generational harmony” can be achieved by facing the challenges of handing down values, memories and optimism through labour relations and the culture of enterprise (as also discussed by the philosopher Remo Bodei in his latest book, Generazioni – Età della vita, età delle cose, published by Laterza), and the “culture of industry” can serve as a paradigm for new forms of social transformation.
While it’s true that there is still a strong “gerontocracy” in the Italian economy (as documented in an interesting book by Sandro Catani, published by Garzanti, which looked at the 400 positions at the top flights of Italy’s publicly listed corporations and found an oligarchy with an average age of 65 – the highest in Europe – that is holding back generational change), change is, nonetheless, under way, even within small and medium enterprise, where the family business is evolving towards forms of management that, at least to some extent, leave room for properly trained managers, the generational change is making good headway and doing so in original ways (as documented in the latest issue of the magazine Capital, with its cover story entitled “Generazione 40”).
In any event, the public debate surrounding the metamorphosis of business needs to go beyond gerontocracy and old-vs.-young and take a critical look at what is happening now in Germany with “Space Cowboys” – teaching young people to “cowboy up” when it comes to their future.