A Booming Voice
Generation that could be retiring says, ‘Heck no, we won’t go!’
by Hank Lindborg
About 17% of respondents to ASQ’s 2007 salary survey were 55 or older. Most of them, born between 1946 and 1964, are baby boomers. According to the Yankelovich marketing firm, this generation’s essence is defined by "individuality, youth, [and] self absorption."1
An aging generation defined by youth might seem to be a paradox. Yankelovich CEO J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman answer, "Boomers will age, but they won’t get old—meaning they will remain engaged and youthful in spirit."2
In 2003, AARP reported that 68% of survey respondents 50 to 70 years old said they plan to continue working in some capacity or will not retire at all.3
Reasons for remaining in the workforce vary. According to the Families and Work Institute, fewer than 25% of employees are confident of having resources to retire comfortably, leading to a progressively older retirement age.4
Others wish to remain engaged in meaningful work, a powerful driver for older workers.5
Whatever their motives, implications of the United States’ largest and most influential generation’s delay of retirement are significant. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, those 65 and older will grow from 12.4 % of the population in 2000 to 20.7% in 2050.6 If many of the 79 million boomers eligible to retire between 2010 and 2025 remain employed, they will contribute to a changed workplace.
One reason boomers will retain positions from which they would have retired or work under new flexible arrangements is that they are needed. Corporations in the United States and across the globe have been slow to recognize the need to plan for a demographic "meltdown."7
Areas of health (ironically growing because of a large aging population), public administration, IT, professional associations, skilled manufacturing and even law face shortages.
Flexible work benefits all generations. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s "Work That Works" program recognizes workplaces that support sustainable productivity through good practices.8 Among these is flexing.
Boomers whose work is valued can take advantage of flexible scheduling to contribute on their own terms. They might also find they can outsource themselves, continuing to perform important aspects of their jobs as consultants or portfolio workers.
Pluses and minuses
Quality professionals who see their career paths stretching beyond traditional retirement age should consider a number of factors motivating and affecting their work lives: ageism and generational divides, the benefits of flexing (the opportunity to schedule work in ways that make a balanced life possible), work engagement and new careers, as well as human needs that continue in work or retirement.
The popularity of Ray Kurzweil’s approach to living long enough for science to offer us immortality is fueled by boomers’ open scorn for getting old.9
In continuing their careers, however, they will face negative stereotypes of infirmity, inflexibility, intellectual decline and belief that they are obstructing the advancement of echo boomers: Generation X (1965-1978) and Gen Y (1979–1991). Our work culture hasn’t yet recognized that the human brain continues to adapt to new learning and that creativity persists into old age.10
Also, generations don’t always interact in ways that promote appreciation and mentoring. A 2006 Randstad survey found that while 64% of young respondents said they learn from older workers, only 23% said these workers bring energy and new ideas. A mere 22% said they seek advice from employees over age 50.11
We know that workers across generations share many of the same values, but differences can be challenging.12 Some questions to consider if you want to remain in a traditional position: How do you relate to younger workers? Are you defensive and reactive about issues of age?
Engagement provides boomers with a motive to continue working and a selling point to employers. Defined as "work-centric," they see work as integral to their lives and contribute to greater productivity.
Boomers might seek out new careers. Some pursue higher education or take advantage of their advanced degrees by teaching online or in the classroom at colleges and universities. Others engage in active job searches, seeking out new opportunities with firms different from their own or in the rapidly expanding not-for-profit sector. Here, the questions are the same as at the beginning of your career: Do you know your skills? Can you sell them?
Finally, recognize that whether you decide to retire, volunteer or remain employed, some things remain the same. Maria Malayter has identified that an ongoing need for relationships, desire to learn and holistic well-being are as essential in retirement as they are in work.13
- Yankelovich, www.yankelovich.com.
- J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman, Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Live Today … And They’re Just Getting Started, Collins, 2007, p. 5.
- "A Business Case for Workers Age 50+," AARP, 2003.
- "Generations and Gender in the Workplace," Families and Work Institute, 2004.
- "Wanted: Interesting & Meaningful Work: A BlessingWhite Survey Report on the State of the Career," BlessingWhite, 2004.
- U.S. Department of Labor, www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/qf-olderworkers55.htm.
- Edward E. Gordon, The 2010 Meltdown: Solving the Impending Jobs Crisis, Praeger, 2005.
- "When Working Works: New Ideas from the Winners of the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility," Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, 2007.
- Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Penguin, 2005, p. 210.
- AARP, "A Business Case for Workers Age 50+," see reference 3.
- "Employee Review," Randstad USA, 2006.
- Jennifer J. Deal, Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground, Jossey-Bass, 2006.
- Maria Malayter, Boomers: Visions of the New Retirement, iUniverse, 2004.
Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board.