OK Boomer! We Still Want You!
By Greg Selke, Lorna Stearns, and Lin Grensing-Pophal | 12 min read
Hiring managers who have trouble filling open positions. Companies with jobs to fill, from frontline retail and manufacturing shop floors to data science, cybersecurity, and IT teams, are competing for scarce talent.
Here’s the talent pool you’re likely overlooking: Baby Boomers. Consider two data points:
Baby Boomers aren’t just biding their time until retirement. Even while millions of Boomers in the United States left the workforce during the pandemic, many of them, especially those better off, considered their moves temporary and did not claim retirement benefits like Social Security, a Washington Post analysis found. And a Harris Poll conducted on behalf of Express Employment Professionals in 2021 found a majority of these older workers are interested in continuing to work at least part-time. Arrangements most said they would consider include a flexible work schedule (79%), transitioning to a consulting role (62%), or working reduced hours with reduced benefits (57%).
Baby Boomers want to learn new skills. In the U.S., according to AARP research, 57% of workers over 50 (the youngest Boomers, born in 1964, reached 58 in 2022) are interested in gaining job skills if their employer requests it. And they’re not technologically averse. A 2020 report from consultancy Mobiquity notes that most (77% of 253 survey respondents) enjoy trying new technology.
It’s tempting to overlook this experienced segment of the workforce. But that would be unfortunate. Baby Boomers have a lot to contribute and an interest in doing so. Excluding them means losing out on their knowledge and strong work ethic. Employers have an opportunity to better engage this population by ensuring their hiring and retention processes are free from bias, setting Boomers up as coaches and mentors, and enlisting them in leading training endeavors. It also pays to offer Boomers development opportunities, by considering them in succession plans and creating roles specifically designed to allow Boomers to contribute in ways that match their interests.
- Generation Z: Born 1997 to 2012.
- Millennials: Born 1981 to 1996.
- Generation X: Born 1965 to 1980.
- Baby Boomers II: Born 1955 to 1964.
- Baby Boomers I: Born 1946 to 1954.
- Post War: Born 1928 to 1945.
- WWII: Born 1922 to 1927.
Combat the potential for bias in hiring, retention
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies at many organizations emphasize creating welcoming work environments for women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ employees. Some programs also focus on early-career employees – twentysomethings who are part of Generation Z.
These management efforts make sense, but they miss out on an opportunity to include aging workers in their diversity definitions, says Megan Gerhardt, a professor of management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio and coauthor of Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce.
Researchers have found that only 8% of companies include age in their diversity and inclusion strategies, Gerhardt says.
This is a costly omission in an era of high turnover and a tight labor market, Gerhardt argues. Baby Boomers may represent opportunities for organizations to retain institutional knowledge and reap the benefits that years of experience can provide.
Baby Boomers have a lot to contribute and an interest in doing so. Excluding them means losing out on their knowledge and strong work ethic.
Benefiting from more mature workers requires taking a deep and honest look at the perceptions – and misperceptions – that may exist internally among managers, because such thinking can create bias in hiring and retention.
The first step is to ensure the organization complies with laws that bar age discrimination, Gerhardt says. “You can dress it up however you want, but when you’re signaling through language or through questioning that you’re really more interested in someone younger, that’s the recipe for a lawsuit.”
This starts with the hiring process. Miriam Groom, an industrial and organizational therapist and HR strategist and CEO of Mindful Career, says steps companies can take to combat the potential for hiring bias during the hiring process include removing any personally identifiable information during screening to focus on experience only and not other factors like age or gender. It also is important to educate hiring managers on the value that diverse candidates can bring to their teams.
Combating ageism comes with benefits. Older candidates, Groom says, “come with more life experience, the ability to understand complex problems and come up with creative resolutions to them – things that individuals with less life experience may not be able to do simply due to not having enough time for the trials and errors of life.”
Set Boomers up as coaches and mentors
Experts say it pays to put experienced workers, such as Baby Boomers, into positions where they can impart knowledge.
This is not a new idea. It’s common enough for decision-makers to call in a “senior advisor,” whether it’s in the C-suite or surgery suites. In the U.S., the Service Corps of Retired Executives has organized retired experts to offer free coaching to business owners since 1965 (one year after the last Baby Boomer was born).
Boomers, it turns out, make good candidates for this role, Groom says. In the mentoring programs she’s led, it’s common for more mature participants to be good coaches. “The individuals whose profiles matched the ‘ideal behavior profile’ for a coach are individuals who are in the Baby Boomer era,” she says.
Reverse mentoring is another take on coaching. This involves pairing a newer employee with one who is more seasoned. They then can learn from each other based on their varied perspectives. For instance, a seasoned marketing professional might be paired with a new colleague to share insights from their years of experience, while the new employee might share experiences using newer social media marketing channels like TikTok or Instagram.
A mix of generations at work benefits employers, says journalist Steve Lopez, the author of Independence Day, about the decision to retire. “Things have always clicked when there’s a good group of newer employees, people midway in their careers, and some old-timers like me, because each group has something to learn from one another,” says Lopez, a Baby Boomer. “I think it’s a really important time for employers to find ways to hold on to old-timers like myself.”
Examples of this are plentiful and varied as Boomers find ways to remain relevant. Take one of our colleagues who we’ll call Jan. She left a corporate HR role and then taught university courses ad hoc. The arrangement was fulfilling for Jan, who was able to share her expertise and interact with a new group. Her students benefited from her real-world knowledge.
Boomers as knowledge transfer agents
There’s another reason to maintain attractive work environments for older workers: When they walk out the door, they take all they know with them. The over-60 demographic is among the largest in industrialized economies. What happens to all that expertise?
Gerhardt says that companies can see this as an opportunity.
For example, one organization can look to recruit people leaving other companies. “How do we take all that knowledge and wisdom that another company wasn’t smart enough to hold on to and bring it here to help us?” she says.
Instead of sitting back as veteran employees approach retirement, leaders can take steps to pragmatically engage, or reengage, them in ways that benefit both them and their organizations.
Enlisting Boomers’ aid in training efforts is one example.
At Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate services firm, five generations are represented from Gen Z to the Silent Generation. “We ask the more senior executives who are typically Boomers to sponsor employee resource groups, participate in mentorship programs, and lead internal training programs that help younger generations,” says Miriam Brilleman, HR director at Cushman & Wakefield. “In commercial real estate, Boomers in many cases hold the keys to the important relationships already established in the business. I have found that they are very receptive to DEI values and helping to make the next generation of commercial real estate professionals successful.”
The individuals whose profiles matched the ‘ideal behavior profile’ for a coach are individuals who are in the Baby Boomer era.
Miriam Groom, CEO of Mindful Career
Knowledge transfer can take place internally between Boomers and employees at the same organization, or Boomer employees may take their knowledge to others. For instance, Tracy, another professional we know, retired from a corporate HR executive role and started doing HR consulting specifically for nonprofits.
“Sculpting” jobs to create roles that match Boomers’ interests
Showing employees they are valued can take the form of creating roles that suit their interests. Gerhardt points to such a tactic – “job sculpting” – as another opportunity for employers to keep Baby Boomers on board.
Job sculpting is something that has traditionally been used with top performers, Gerhardt says, akin to stating: “We don’t want to lose you, so we’ll sculpt the way this will work for you so we can keep you.”
The practice involves matching people to jobs or tasks that draw upon their interests and aptitudes. Gerhardt says employers could use a job sculpting strategy when recruiting and retaining Baby Boomers by offering flexible hours and work setting and training in skills they want to learn.
As a Harris Poll reveals, factors other than money are important to most Baby Boomers. They indicate that they’d be most likely to continue to work if they could have a flexible work schedule (79%), could transition to a consulting role (66%) or could work reduced hours with reduced benefits (59%). Only 21%, though, say their employers offer semiretirement options.
Baby Boomers, please stay
With lifespans that are likely to extend a decade past their 65th birthday, many Baby Boomers are not in a rush to sit around and do nothing for 20-plus years. Others may have financial situations that require them to remain in the workforce.
For many Boomers, such circumstances make age 60 and beyond a time of career transition – not an end point. And this reality represents opportunities for organizations to include them in training and development activities for reskilling and upskilling, as well as succession planning efforts, rather than assume they have no interest.
The talent companies are looking for today may be already here or all ready to go. Incorporating Baby Boomers into other DEI efforts can help minimize the odds of losing experienced workers while improving the potential of recruiting top talent from this generational cohort.
Companies that help their near-retirement employees think about what’s next can create advantages for all concerned.
Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive of Next-Up, an organization that works with people preparing for retirement. A Baby Boomer herself, Tomlinson says the preretirement workshops she runs include giving employees ideas for their next pursuits and suggesting ways they can gain new skills before retiring. Getting involved in their employers’ environmental, social, and governance initiatives, for example, “will give them topical expertise and new contacts and also reenergize them before they leave,” she says.
Attendees of her workshops can discover opportunities to learn more about technology, for example. Tomlinson says she has seen attendees go on to serve as in-house mentors and coaches before they retire. The reward for employers, she says, “is motivated people during their last years.”
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