Surviving the Mass Exodus of Boomers
in the Workplace

By Anne Houlihan

In 2011, the oldest of the Baby Boomers will turn 65, marking a turning point in corporate America. As the 76 million Baby Boomers begin to leave the workforce, the United States will experience the most dramatic economic and demographic changes in its history. For the first time ever we are facing a mass retirement movement. To survive unscathed, companies must begin planning and preparation for this transition today.

At first glance, the impending Baby Boomer exodus may seem of little concern to companies. After all, people have been retiring from the workplace for ages. However, companies need to keep in mind that the upcoming retirement years are going to be larger scale than in any other time in our country’s history. With 76 million Baby Boomers leaving the workforce and only 46 million Generation Xers available to take the newly vacant roles, there’s a deficit of 30 million workers. And while the Millennials (also known as Generation Y) number at approximately the 100 million mark, the oldest of them are too young and inexperienced to step into leadership roles.

Therefore, think about your own company for a moment. How will you handle this transition? How will you groom your Generation X workers to step into leadership roles? How are you going to transfer the 40+ years of wisdom and experience that the Boomers possess to your younger workers? How do you plan to keep your company successful and running smoothly with a deficit of workers?

The bottom line is that all companies need to harness the young leadership already in their company so that the Baby Boomer exodus has as little impact as possible on the organization. Use the following tips to help make the upcoming transition period a smooth one.

1. Know what you’re up against: You need to find out as soon as possible how this mass retirement will affect your company. Get with your HR department and find out your workplace demographics. How many Baby Boomers are currently working in the company, what are their positions, and what are their anticipated retirement dates? For example, are all your middle managers positioned to retire in the next five years? Will three key machinists be leaving all at once? Will your sales department shrink by half in the next few years? You need to know what the impact will be on your company so you can start planning and be ready for the transition.

2. Develop a knowledge transfer strategy: Most companies have policy manuals that detail each position’s job requirements. While such a policy manual is a good start for grooming younger workers, it’s simply not enough. After all, you can only document so much of the day-to-day activities. Plus, there are subtleties of every job—things you do just because experience and knowledge points you in a certain direction. You simply can’t document those kinds of things. That’s why you need to go a step further and develop a strategy/policy/training system for transferring the knowledge and skills of the older workers to the younger successors.

3. Mentor the younger workers: As part of the knowledge transfer strategy, companies need to implement some sort of mentoring program. For a company to have a successful transition, the younger generation needs to work side-by-side with the older workers for some time. You simply cannot transfer 40+ years of knowledge and expertise overnight. Therefore, if you know that a key person is going to be retiring in three years, have that person start mentoring a younger worker now. Again, this is not something you can do during a new hire’s 90-day training period. True mentoring takes a year to accomplish at the very least. Additionally, the Generation X workers who receive this sort of long-term mentoring will feel more valued and will be more likely to stay with the company long-term.

4. Retain the older workers in some fashion: Realize that just because someone turns 65 doesn’t mean they want to retire that day. Many of your older workers will want to stay in the workforce in some sort of capacity, either by choice or by necessity. Since many Boomers worked hard to put kids through college or are currently taking care of aging parents, they still need to work well past age 65 just to make ends meet. Others are taking advantage of medical breakthroughs and as a result feel more active and alive than they did when they were younger. In either of these cases, your older workers may be open to staying onboard on a part-time basis or as a consultant. Since they often want to pursue other interests at this stage of their life, being chained down to a 9 to 5 desk job won’t appeal to them. But the more flexibility you offer, the more likely they’ll be to stick around as a resource for the company.

5. Put a strong management team in place: For your company to get through this transitional period, you need strong management and leadership. You need someone who can empower and motivate both generations to be open-minded and to learn from each other. You need a leader with expertise, not only in your industry, but also in people skills. Realize that a lot of the younger workers don’t have much patience to be side-by-side older workers, because they believe the Boomers aren’t up-to-date on technology or know “how the world really is.” That’s why you need leaders in place who can help people be open to mentoring—both on the giving and receiving side. If your company doesn’t have the right leaders on board, the bottom line will suffer. Your leaders simply must be involved to see this transitional phase through.

A Successful Transition for All: Because the unemployment rate is high right now due to the current economy, companies can draw from that pool of workers to help fill the gap the Boomers will be leaving. But since no one has a crystal ball that can predict the country’s economic future, no one can rely on this “fix” for the long haul. That’s why planning and preparation are so needed.

The coming years will definitely be a challenge for companies, as more people will be retiring than usual. The smart organizations will take a proactive approach and start addressing the issue now. Remember, transferring the knowledge and expertise of your older workers to your younger ones is not something you can do in a few days or weeks. Therefore, you need to adopt a longer-term focus than what you may be accustomed to in order to survive the impending transitional phase. By helping everyone—young and old—work together, your company can be successful and thrive in the years to come.

Read other articles and learn more about Anne Houlihan.

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