Employers, workers benefit when HR helps older staff with career decisions

More workers approaching retirement opting to retire in phases rather than quitting cold turkey


If you’re like most Canadian workplaces, you have a large group of baby boomers wondering about how to approach their remaining working years. For HR, providing career guidance to older employees will become an increasing concern as this group ages in the years ahead.

In previous generations, people often retired by going overnight from full-time work to none at all. Today, however, many people opt to phase out their income-producing activities and change the nature of their work. They are switching to contract and consulting work that allows them to work less than full-time, but still continue to apply their skills.

Because of this, HR managers will increasingly have an opportunity to keep experienced, knowledgeable employees connected to the company longer, often on a part-time basis or as a consultant or mentor.

The key to managing the transition is planning. Call it a “rehearsal” if you like, but it involves the worker envisioning a new life after retirement. Will he continue to work full time in a different job? Work part time? Set up his own business? Consult? Volunteer?

And the HR manager needs to think about what the new organization will look like. Does she want to try to retain some of these older workers past retirement age to keep some of the continuity and knowledge they have acquired within the company a little longer? How can the company’s plans support those of the employee?

Why boomers don’t want to retire

There are many reasons baby boomers put off retirement. Some simply can’t afford to retire. These people will often try to stay in the workforce in some capacity, although they may have to settle for lower-paid and often part-time work.

Others want to continue to work primarily for psychological reasons. They want to stay engaged, to continue to make a contribution, to be challenged and learn new things.

Others simply cannot envision themselves doing anything other than working. So much of their sense of self has been tied to doing and achieving that retirement for them represents only loss — of status, structure and identity. This is why so many people become depressed when forced into retirement.

Why HR managers should keep them

Despite the so-called skills shortage, some older workers feel that their age is holding them back. They are not being paranoid. Ours is a youth-obsessed society.

Fortunately, this is changing. Organizations are now starting to court older workers, in part to minimize the impact of baby boomer retirements, but also in recognition of the wisdom, experience and proven management skills of older workers.

Here are some actions HR can take:

•Encourage the employee to review unfinished business: The older employee should review where he has been, where he is now, where he would like to go and what is still missing in his life. Lives and careers do tend to come full circle. As people finish careers, they tend to move into areas that reaffirm and reintegrate early impulses.

•Enable the “rehearsal” to start now: People who make the most successful transition to retirement are those who first try out new roles in advance to see how well they fit, and whether they are meaningful and energizing — volunteering, doing small consulting assignments, teaching part time, taking up new artistic pursuits. In the process they begin to let go of notions of external rewards and find satisfaction from doing productive things and being themselves.

•Encourage the employee to think career shift, not change: There is no need for the employee to completely reinvent himself, or his career choices, in order to move into retirement mode. A career change is expensive, often involving going back to school and learning new skills. A career shift involves using the same interests and skills the employee has always depended on, but in a different way. Rather than looking for a total career makeover, consider examining “shadow” careers — professions that use similar skill sets, reconfigured.

The nurse, for example, who was attracted to her profession because she wanted to nurture people but now finds herself scurrying between patients without sufficient contact, or the teacher who wanted to make a difference in children’s lives but is unhappy with cutbacks and large classes — these people are ripe for a career shift.

The nurse might pursue opportunities as a pharmaceutical sales rep, massage therapist, or health coach, depending on underlying core interests. The teacher might reconfigure skills as an educational sales rep, management trainer, curriculum designer or tutor.

•Consider having the employee continue part time: Employees may not be able to gain enough income from just one source. Increasingly today people are putting together a living through a variety of work situations. This may mean owning vending machines, taking on consulting assignments and teaching a course at a local college. For the HR manager, this presents an opportunity to have the employee work part time or as a consultant.

•Consider the employee as a mentor: Consider the older worker’s strong work ethic, mentoring capacity and ability to act as a stabilizing influence. Older workers can actively contribute to the development of younger workers, including younger bosses.

•Think about contract work, especially to help skirt head count rules: Managers and HR professionals who have been told to cut down on permanent staff can often increase their flexibility by using contract workers. For the employee, part-time work can make him more attractive while also giving him more flexibility to build a portfolio career, pursuing other work (or volunteer) interests.

•Consider the older worker’s key strengths: wisdom and experience. Find environments in which expertise and know-how really count. Although as a general rule high-tech companies often shun the older worker, I have two client companies in which the average employee age is in the early 30s but who also have a 60-year-old under contract because he has “been there.”

Times may be tough for older workers today, but down the road the long-term prospects are better as the baby-boomer contingent retires. The trend of encouraging older workers to stay with the company — in whatever capacity — past retirement age can only benefit society as a whole, by stemming a profound loss of knowledge, maturity and experience.

Barbara Moses is a consultant, speaker and best-selling author. This article was adapted from her book, What Next? The Complete Guide to Taking Control of Your Working Life. She can be reached at [email protected] or (416) 922-2455.

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