Okay Boomer: The Largest Generation’s Lasting Impact on Staffing
The Pew Research Center tagged 1946-1964 as the baby boom era when a whopping 76 million Americans were born. This post-World War II crowd overshadowed the groups that sandwiched them, with just 47 million people forming the earlier “Silent Generation” and 55 million Generation Xers who arrived on the scene afterward.
Unsurprisingly, boomers had a seismic effect when they entered the workforce. And they didn’t just dominate the job market in their heyday. A large contingent of this massive generation continued to work past the typical retirement age due to improved healthcare and concerns for financial security.
Consequently, Gen X and Millennials have vied for jobs with these veteran workers for years. And as reported by The New York Times, “Virtually all of the growth in the labor force between the end of the Great Recession and the start of the pandemic a decade later came from workers 55 and older.”
But now, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way. The Boomer retirement wave is starting to swell, and it’s coinciding with the ongoing “Great Resignation.” Suddenly, instead of a glut of workers, companies are finding it hard to fill skilled roles.
As a result, today’s business leaders face two distinct challenges:
- Making the most of Boomers’ historical knowledge and experience before they go
- Preparing for their organization’s continued success
As Boomers retire, they’re causing a brain drain. They leave with a wealth of historical knowledge and information about their industry and organizations, lists of key contacts, and the polished soft skills that made them successful. Younger workers may be more technologically proficient, but they’ll be playing catch-up without a solid knowledge transfer from their departing colleagues.
Employment experts refer to this type of knowledge as “tribal knowledge” or “tacit knowledge.” It’s information that is often undocumented or even unarticulated. And unfortunately, Express Employment Professionals reports that “the majority of working boomers say they have shared half or less of the knowledge needed to perform their jobs with those who will assume those responsibilities.”
It’s not that boomers poised to retire are ungenerous. On the contrary, they’re overwhelmingly willing to mentor the next generation. But many haven’t been asked to share what they know.
Expounding on this missed opportunity, Respectful Exits founder Paul Rupert told Forbes:
“The systematic failure of companies to mine their pre-retirees for critical knowledge and intellectual property wastes the talents of a whole generation and cripples the potential effectiveness of the next cohort.”
Leaders must develop methods to facilitate this generational transition to avoid a potential knowledge vacuum. They can achieve this goal by baking mentorship and collaborative behaviors into their workplace culture. Sharing information should be an ongoing process throughout the organization, not an afterthought as people pack up their desks.
Forbes profiled several companies that are addressing this crucial need to transfer knowledge. For example, Duke Energy has a system for managers to create knowledge-transfer plans for team members nearing retirement.
The Siemens manufacturing and electronics firm is so vested in the issue that it partnered with Clemson University on a three-year research project to transfer institutional knowledge from Boomer team members to younger staff.
GM has an internal mentor portal to help transmit wisdom. And Michelin North America offers veteran workers phased retirements so they can gradually exit and train younger staffers as they wind down.
Other options to ensure knowledge transfer include a system for successors to shadow those whose roles they will fill and retaining retirees as consultants. Richard Eisenberg addressed all these preemptive tactics in Forbes:
“Doing these kinds of things avoids that awful day when workers realize the only person who knows something or has a key business relationship is no longer employed with them and they're on their own.”
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo summarized the central challenge businesses are facing in three words in an article for Bloomberg: “Workforce, workforce, workforce. We can’t hire enough, we can’t hire fast enough, we can’t hire people with the skills we need.”
The pending Boomer work exodus is causing what Federal Reserve Chief Jerome Powell called “a structural labor shortage.” As a result, today’s tight labor market will continue for years, and companies need to act now to prepare for the future.
Kimberlee Leonard offered a game plan for businesses preparing for the pending Boomer mass retirement in an article for Business.com. In five steps, she couples some of the above strategies with other measures to give organizations more rebar during this transition.
- Analyze Workforce Demographics
Leonard stresses the need for businesses to understand their exposure to the generational shift. She notes that many employers are unclear about their internal demographics and don’t track the percentage eligible retirees. She recommends gathering employee record data to assess how many Boomers are on staff and what positions they hold.
- Retool Workforce & Systems for Greater Flexibility
Making Boomers’ departures more gradual is another way to mitigate the brain drain. Many Boomers still want to work for personal or financial reasons but are ready to lessen their workload. Employers can also offer more flexible job arrangements, like part-time positions, telecommuting, or compressed work schedules.
- Identify Key Succession Risks
Leonard recommends prioritizing succession planning efforts by weighing questions such as:
- Which positions will be most important to future business needs?
- What knowledge will be lost with a given employee?
- Which positions could be filled by internal talent?
- How will the labor market affect cost and timing?
She reminds business leaders that Boomer retirements will continue for years and that this kind of strategic planning should be ongoing.
- Engage Senior Workers and Successors
It’s important to not only tap senior workers for their knowledge while still on staff but also to solicit their active involvement through positive engagement. Leonard notes that the tone and context of interactions with these employees must emphasize their value to the organization. Leaders should support seasoned employees as they prepare the company for continued success.
She also recommends identifying younger employees with emerging leadership skills and helping them foster relationships that will facilitate the transfer of critical knowledge. And she points out that most Millennials welcome having a mentor.
- Facilitate Knowledge Transfer
Leonard reiterates the need for multiple formal and informal opportunities for mentoring and coaching to help transfer knowledge. She advocates for businesses to:
- Create intergenerational work teams. Beyond formal one-on-one mentoring, it’s beneficial for organizations to systematically pair older and younger workers on teams.
- Include senior workers in hiring and training. This strategy gives veteran workers a stake in the organization’s future and allows recruits to benefit from their knowledge as soon as they join the team.
- Use technology to facilitate knowledge transfer. Personal interactions are priceless, but technology can help organizations accumulate a knowledge stockpile. Leaders should provide simple tools for people of all generations to document their work roles and the information necessary to succeed in them.
Leaders who ignore the looming generational shift will leave new staffers less prepared to carry on their company’s legacy. But with foresight and planning, they can preserve seasoned employees’ institutional knowledge and workplace know-how. If executed well, this process can be the crowning validation of a generation of top performers and help their successors hit the ground running.