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Are boomers becoming workplace pariahs?

Our exclusive Pulse Survey reveals employers aren’t too concerned about boomers retiring and some are hoping it happens sooner than later

By Todd Humber

For years, demographers have been running around like Chicken Little warning employers about the year 2011.

This is the year the first wave of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) turn 65. We’ve had this date circled on the calendar and written about it numerous times in the pages of Canadian HR Reporter in the last decade. Labour shortages, a mass loss of institutional knowledge and a dearth of qualified leaders were supposed to be the result.

But all the problems forecast to arrive with the start of the boomers’ exodus from the workforce have arrived with a whimper — something the results of a recent Pulse Survey clearly back up — for more on the survey, look for the Sept. 26 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.

Only one-quarter of the 393 respondents think the exodus will bring about significant challenges. Nearly 70 per cent are either confident they can handle the challenge or don’t think there will be one.

That’s a huge turnaround from three years ago. In October 2008, we reported on a slightly different survey of 627 HR professionals conducted by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) that came to a far different conclusion. It found only 14 per cent of respondents were fully prepared for the coming talent shortage caused by retiring boomers and the majority — 60 per cent — were only somewhat prepared.

So what happened? Where did this new-found confidence come from? A strong case can be made for three driving forces — the economy, the abolishment of mandatory retirement for most workers and a desire by boomers who love what they do to stick around.

The economy: The global economy has tanked and fears of a double-dip recession are growing. Not only has that caused many organizations to shed staff but it has also put a massive dent in the investment portfolios of boomers.

“I believe that, due to the recent problems with the economy that have affected retirement fund investments, many boomers will work longer than planned,” said one survey respondent.

Another observed a “dramatic” number of individuals who planned to retire have been forced to reconsider and defer retirement because of financial issues.

Mandatory retirement: A number of respondents commented that, with the elimination of mandatory retirement at age 65, many workers are sticking around longer.

And while few would argue with the premise it’s unfair to force a worker out the door simply because of a birthday, comments came through loud and clear about the challenge that’s posing.

Some expressed concern that, in the past, employers would simply accept poor performance from a worker approaching retirement age, knowing she would soon be heading out the door.

“(These firms) will now have to consider commencing a constructive discipline to try and influence output or make a case for termination for just cause — good luck with that,” said one respondent.

Boomers love their jobs: A few of the respondents put the spotlight on how much boomers enjoy working.

“I see a lot of people who are nearing retirement talking about how they really do enjoy their work. They can’t imagine why they would stop doing something they enjoy and which provides financial, social, intellectual and, often, a spiritual comfort all rolled into one. Why would you leave something like that?”

But what was most striking in the survey comments was the common view boomers are actually impediments who are overstaying their welcome.

Here’s a sampling of comments on that front:

“Our boomers are trickling away despite buyouts to help them exit, the strategy being that we can hire new talent at a much lower cost.”

“Several employees who could retire are not retiring and this means a blockage of opportunities for younger workers and that we are not getting fresh and new approaches and ideas.”

“We actually wish many of them would retire now. We are going through a major change in our organization and they are so resistant to any change at all.”

The conversation seems to have flipped from “How do we keep them around?” to “How can we get rid of them?” — that’s surprising.

Not everyone holds that view, of course. A solid majority touched on issues you would expect — concern about succession planning in the senior ranks, a loss of institutional knowledge and an emphasis on creating phased-retirement programs to keep boomers around.

But it’s a double-edged sword. One respondent from British Columbia might have summed it up best: “With the elimination of mandatory retirement in the B.C. public sector, there are concerns people will stay indefinitely, which has implications for sick leave and increased health insurance costs. On the other hand, it’s good to retain boomers for their knowledge, work ethic and commitment to the organization and work… the newbies could learn a thing or two from their parents.”

The fact the sky didn’t fall this year isn’t surprising. We’ve always known the labour shortage caused by the boomers retiring would be a medium to long-term problem. But don’t get complacent — there are plenty of dark clouds on the horizon.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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