The purpose demographic

What can organizations do to engage baby boomers as they move toward retirement?

When it comes to the issue of age diversity, most organizations are focused on the challenges of the millennials. Programs designed to attract and retain millennials have expanded diversity beyond the usual concerns of gender and race. However, there is considerably less attention paid to another group in the workplace: baby boomers, who face quite a different set of workplace issues. While the oldest of the boomers have already hit retirement, the vast majority will move toward it over the next 10 years. The issues associated with the sunset of an employee’s career will therefore become more and more relevant to organizational effectiveness and improved employee engagement.

Recently a friend told me that, after almost 25 years with his company, he didn’t think he could endure the last five years before retirement. He lamented that his work no longer seemed meaningful and he doubted that he was making a difference. It sounded like he was going through a midlife crisis. I referred him to the work of Bob Buford, author of the books Halftime and Finishing Well. Buford’s work has led to what is called the halftime movement, which postulates that we actually have two lifetimes: life 1 goes from birth to about age 50 and life 2 goes from 50 to “expiry.” The halftime movement focuses on the in-between period, which occurs around the age of 45, when people start to ask questions such as Now what? in relation to their life purpose. After reading these books and attending some halftime courses, my friend decided to leave his six-figure-salary job and return to his dream of becoming a Baptist minister.

Over the next few years, as the boomers begin to confront their next chapter in the world of work, organizations will need to pay more attention to the unique situation facing this large cohort. The war for talent is about to heat up and holding on to the best and brightest regardless of age will be even more critical. According to demographic projections cited by the Boston Consulting Group, in less than two decades Canada will join countries such as Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan and South Korea that are facing significant labour shortages and mismatches of skills. This is already evident, as many companies have realized that a majority of their executive leadership will be eligible for retirement within five years and that the typical supply pipeline for executive leadership — that is, senior managers — is also aging significantly. The question is, what can organizations facing skills shortages do to engage boomers as they transition through the age of purpose?

A well-known saying has it that where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation. Have you adequately looked at where the talents of the boomer generation may overlap with the current needs of your organization? Research shows those organizations that spend time identifying and playing to their employees’ strengths and talents have significantly higher levels of employee engagement and productivity than those that don’t. While this is important for new employees, it is even more critical for those who have been with the organization the longest and are now looking for ways to contribute and make a difference in their company and the world.

The first step toward leveraging your employees’ need for purpose is to start with a comprehensive workplace forecast, to become familiar with your workforce demographics. The next step is to create a process to optimize the strengths of the entire workforce, including those nearing retirement. Finally, integrating these findings into a strategy that seeks to retain the best talent will allow you to take a more inclusive approach to talent management and creatively leverage the age of purpose.