When we hear the term “Baby Boomers” our minds tend to be flooded with thoughts about succession planning and the so-called “Great Wealth Transfer”.  What if I were to tell you the biggest succession opportunity for Baby Boomers and their younger generations has nothing to do with succession planning or wealth transfer? 

One study of family-owned businesses found that 43% of family-owned businesses don’t have a succession plan. Another study found that while 70% of family-owned businesses fail to plan the transition from the first generation to the second, 90% fail to transition to the third generation. At the same time, the number of second-generation family members interested in joining the family business has decreased in the past 10 years. None of these factors improves the chances of a successful transition of a family-owned business from one generation to the next. 

The data on the estimated coming wealth transfer is also staggering. An estimated $30 trillion to $68 trillion will be transferred from Boomers to future generations over the next 20-30 years. Boomers, the wealthiest generation in history, are said to hold 70% of all disposable income in North America. How that wealth will be transferred has yet to be determined. 

These staggering numbers present both challenges and opportunities. Though the dominant discourse focuses on succession planning and the “Great Wealth Transfer,” the biggest opportunity is not in the numbers. Instead, it’s in the relationships. Many years ago, my mother taught me the concept of yoking. A yoke is a wooden beam used to connect two animals together so they can pull a load. The idea of yoking, as it was passed down to me, refers to the pairing of a young ox with an old bull. When paired, an eager young ox and a not so eager older one creates a tension that’s ideal for ploughing land. This bringing together of young and old is an often-overlooked aspect of the conversations involving succession planning and wealth transfer.

Part of the work of preparing for the transfer of wealth is preparing the family for the money and money for the family. Most heirs are in debt or poor financial health when they receive their windfall so they lack the knowledge and capacity to protect or multiply the newly inherited wealth. Intergenerational dialogue about how to invest and how to save can be of value to both generations. These conversations can give Boomers the comfort of knowing younger generations will not spend the money frivolously, and younger generations can benefit from the wisdom of Boomers’ astute financial habits. It is the coming together of these generations that presents the biggest opportunity. Without strong relationships, these conversations prove to be exceedingly difficult.   

Our culture, laws, and policies have not kept up in a world where people are living increasingly long and healthy lives. As a result, many Boomers have either left or are being forced to leave a workforce they’re not ready to leave. This creates an opportunity for intergenerational work, where reciprocal coaching and mentoring can have tremendous benefits. Boomers have a wealth of experience that has prepared them to coach or mentor young entrepreneurs through difficult times. And young mentors and coaches can help Boomers keep up with ever-evolving technology.

This proposal of yoking is simple, but in no way easy. Each generation embraces its own values. For example, one study describes how Boomers value working long hours while GenXers value work-life balance. When doing intergenerational work, it’s important that both parties enter the relationship with humility and openness. All parties must show up to learn. Each generation brings its strengths and the concept of yoking provides a metaphor for thinking about how we maximize the opportunities presented to all of us. It helps us think beyond the surface issues or ego issues, and gets us to thinking about how we build capacity for future generations. The challenge is how to clear the decks of egos and agendas and make the soil ready for the yoking of the cow and the bull!