What CEOs are most worried about going into 2023, including a Gen Z culture clash with unretiring boomers

January 9, 2023, 4:39 PM UTC
Diverse group of happy young friends
The 'Great Unretirement' could cause culture issues in 2023.
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If 2022 proved anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Just as businesses breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of the worst of the pandemic being over, Russia invaded Ukraine. Then summer came and the world sadly smashed climate change records, from rising temperatures to sea levels, before inflation spiraled in Q4.

Unfortunately, 2023 is unlikely to go any smoother.

From Fortune’s conversations with over 20 chief executives, one thing is clear: 2023 is going to be a bumpy ride, so buckle up.

Last year’s buzzwords like remote and flexible working feel like a world away from the challenges that war, recession and global turbulence will bring, but rest assured that while you cannot control the external chaos impacting your business, you can control your response. 

The ‘Great Unretirement’ and generational clashes

As the cost of energy, mortgage repayments and food increases, an increasing number of older workers can’t afford to retire and as such are changing their retirement plans – with some retirees even choosing to return to work.

Research, by Royal London, found that a third of those who would have retired in the next 5 years are changing their plans because of the cost of living crisis.

The CEO and chair of U.K. recruitment firm Reed, James Reed, says that although businesses hiring people over 50 is an “encouraging trend”, leaders must first overcome ageism bias in hiring and retention.

“The skill set that older workers offer, including a different yet valuable perspective on workplace decisions and a substantial level of experience, should not be understated. Older workers are invaluable, and companies should think creatively about appealing to this group.”

This might mean throwing out current screening processes or lengthy online applications which can cause “frustration” among older workers. 

Leaders also expressed concern at the multigenerational workforce that comes as a result of embracing unretiring workers at the same time as Gen Z shakes up the working world.

Leaders will need to cater to different communication styles and command a culture that embraces respecting opposing views, to avoid any generational clashes in 2023. 

Short-term fixes 

“Uncertain times tend to breed a return to what feels familiar and has worked previously,” warns Sairah Ashman, global CEO of the branding consultancy Wolff Olins.

She wasn’t alone in being concerned that a global recession will result in businesses stagnating and opting for short-term solutions over innovating.

“I worry that too many businesses will focus on short-term fixes this year: externally and internally,” Will Higham, author and CEO at the strategy consultancy, Next Big Thing agrees while adding that “it’s a natural reaction in a permacrisis when every day’s a struggle.”

Leaders may be tempted to scale back on technology-driven innovations, or go the other way and introduce tech at the expense of human jobs to save money in the short term.

But really, before making any drastic cuts, leaders would be wise to work out where investment is best spent in line with their long-term vision.

Those who don’t carefully balance managing costs in the short-term and delivering a fair return for their shareholders, with making bets that will secure their future and deliver on the business’ strategy, “risk finding themselves under unwanted scrutiny that could lead to their exit,” Ashman adds. 

Balancing rising costs with ESG

Many businesses made ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) commitments during the pandemic, so it’s not surprising that many CEOs are concerned about keeping those promises in the face of a downturn.

The double whammy pressure of keeping costs down while reducing their environmental footprint means leaders will need to do more with less.

As such, a handful of leaders including Ana Paula Assis, IBM’s general manager and chair EMEA, advise firms to lean on tech to save money and operate more sustainably.

“By investing in technologies such as automation and modernization of IT infrastructures, companies can drive efficiency while developing initiatives around circular supply chains, just energy transition and the empowerment of consumers,” she said.

Joni Rautavuori, CEO of the manufacturer Tharsus Group, echoed that with “the right investment in flexible automation” businesses could better deliver on long-term strategies and compete on a global stage – for which he adds that sustainability and productivity are “key”.

Meanwhile, employers who forgo the social governance aspect of their ESG credentials won’t be forgiven by employees (or consumers) despite the economic headwinds.

“This is particularly going to be a hard one to square with the increased cost of living and a continuing recruitment challenge,” says Amali de Alwis, CEO of the climate investment firm, Subak.

Committing to purpose-driven promises could range from keeping that in-office breakfast bar introduced during The Great Resignation, to more serious matters like raising workers’ wages to better cope with the increased cost of living. 

Chief executives, like Alwis are acutely aware that people-first measures are going to be hard to keep up with “against a backdrop of increased operating costs and muted consumer appetite”.

Just like businesses, workers are experiencing cutbacks and depression – but some will be willing to walk out on employers who won’t cushion that blow.

Our new weekly Impact Report newsletter examines how ESG news and trends are shaping the roles and responsibilities of today’s executives. Subscribe here.

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