Retirement, (sigh), retirement. Everywhere you look these days from advertisements, newspapers, social protests, and even television sitcoms “retirement” has become an inescapable buzzword. It is no coincidence that this increased focus comes at a time when the first batch of Baby Boomers worldwide will turn 65 years old. In the US alone this means 7,000 people will reach age 65 each day during 2011.
On a global level, the number of working-age people per retired person is shrinking rapidly, particularly in the developed world where these Baby Boomers reside. By 2050, Europe is expected to have just 2 working-age people per person aged 65+. Government social security schemes worldwide are ill-prepared at best and on the verge of collapse at worst in the face of these rapidly shifting demographics. Beyond the unavoidable economic restructuring needed to accommodate this shift, a number of socio-cultural changes will also have to occur in the workplace and in our private lives, to contend with the gravitational pull of the over-65 crowd: a Global Re“wire”ment, if you will, of our attitudes toward retirement.
The social security funding debacles we see around the globe were a long-time coming. Any country with a census bureau could have seen the avalanche of retired people coming 30 or 35 years down the road, when Baby Boomers, at the height of their reproductive years, were not providing a sufficient replacement population to fund social security. Yet for decades, politicians avoided proposing or making major changes to social security, viewing it as the deadly “third rail” of politics or most sacred of social benefits (whichever metaphor your prefer). The days of putting off this conversation are over and now quick and drastic changes need to occur whether any particular generation likes it or not.
Indeed public policy changes are the obvious step that needs to be taken, but the social response to these proposed modifications needs to be appropriately tempered as well.
Many citizens argue they only want the same social promise afforded to their parents and grandparents and will not accept the slightest difference, whether it means increasing the retirement age by 2 or 3 years or changing the calculation of their benefit. However, the practicality of the situation is that none of us leads the same lives our parents or forebears lived. Should we demand the same, or should we seek enhancements and innovations that much the current times?
Let’s rewind the clock a bit to the times when social security models in Europe, North America, Australia, and other Boomerlands were being created. Cohabitation outside of marriage was considered taboo even as recently as 50 years ago when the tail-end of the Boomers were being born. Birth control methods were practically nonexistent, limiting women to child rearing roles and very limited options for paid work. In fact, throughout Europe, most social security laws were created before women even had the right to vote. Life expectancies, medicine, and health campaigns were nowhere as advanced as they are today. Just look at the childhood days of our Boomer parents when children died of Polio, butter and lard were the staple cooking greases, and cigarette smoking was a status symbol.
The point is that people lived very different lives and created structures that made sense at the time. Both Government and the Public must adjust to meet the needs of the times and we must understand that the benefits afforded to us by our governments change over time as standards of living and expectations of the social contract shift. Should we not look to improved structures or dwell on those of the past simply because they are familiar?
The Baby Boomer Mindset
Since their youth, the Boomer Generation has been at the forefront of a social revolution that placed an increased focus on the unique talents and contributions of the individual. This revolution may now very well affect our definitions of old age and retirement.
As Boomers enter their Golden Years, many of them express a desire to change professional fields by entering a more rewarding career or opening a business or consultation practice. Surveys conducted by the American Association of Retired People (AARP) since 2002, reflect that 7 out of 10 Baby Boomers intend to keep working beyond retirement age. Many indicated financial necessity as a driver in this decision, but still other motivations identified reflect an attitude that remaining in the workforce is a means of staying mentally and physically active or pursuing new goals. That is not to say that Boomers are ready to forego their Social Security benefits and work well into their 80s, but this trend may indicate that future generations may find creative alternatives to traditional retirement that will alter the emphasis of government systems overtime.
A second AARP survey of Boomers turning 65 this year indicated that 78% of respondents are satisfied with the way their life is going, even if simultaneous polls by other organizations indicate they are not confident in the overall direction of the country. When asked if they are where they would like to be financially, only a slight majority of Boomer respondents stated they are where they expected to be at this point in their lives. This would seem to confirm that financial drivers are the primary motivation for working beyond retirement age.
Yet another very interesting AARP survey which tracked the mindset of Boomers at age 60 in 2006 and then again at age 65 in 2011 indicates an increase in positive attitudes as the Boomers attain retirement age. Boomers surveyed were asked to rank the relevance of certain keywords in relation to their view of the next five years of their lives; responders noted the terms “exciting” (70%), “optimistic” (82%), “fulfilling” (84%), “confident” (84%), and “hopeful” (87%) properly described their outlook.
Naturally, there is another segment of the Boomer population whose health does not permit them to work into their retirement years or who are industrial or unskilled workers who have earned minimal salaries in physically grueling jobs their entire adult lives and do not have the resources to embark on new and fulfilling careers. These individuals are often under represented in data concerning retirement. In 2008-2009 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed 14% of the US population aged 65+ living in poverty , even before the Boomers were counted in this statistic.
The poorer sub-groups of Boomers will pose yet an additional social strain on government resources as they seek government-assisted medical services and other forms of government relief. Still others may rely on their children for financial support, which may create domino effects of economic instability across generations at the micro, family level.
Nevertheless, the attitudes expressed by Boomers (at least American Boomers surveyed) seem to reflect the reality of their situations, whether due to their generational proclivities or due to practicality. As Boomers age and set examples for their Generation X and Y children of life after retirement, will they show the same revolutionary influence on society as they did in their younger years?
Make Room for Boomers
The good news is that Boomers have a positive mindset about working well into their Golden Years and may even look forward to it. The other side of the coin still needs to be addressed: are Employers willing to keep these individuals on their payroll?
Age discrimination and technological skill deficits will represent obstacles to Boomers who wish to be relevant contributors to the workforce post retirement. Since 2000, the number of age-discrimination charges has increased by 47% Indeed this is an ironic twist of events, being that Boomers have a higher level education of any prior generation (in the US 88% of Boomer hold a high school degree, and 28% have a bachelor’s degree or higher) .
The current Economic Downturn has helped uncover the areas where Boomers will need to focus their efforts if they are to remain in the workforce as they plan. A November 2010 report by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work focused on workers age 55+ (nearly the complete range of Boomers) and their ability to find new jobs as compared to younger workers ages 18 to 54. During their period of unemployment, only 12% of those over fifty-five had taken a training course compared to 20% of younger workers. When you consider that younger workers tend to have minds that are still pliable and adaptable to new fields and older workers’ profiles may be concentrated on a single industry for several decades, it is apparent that the oldest Boomers are falling short of their competition in maintaining the relevance and flexibility of their professional profiles.
When you look at strategies for finding jobs, you see that 80% of older workers have used newspaper classified ads, 58% have tried online job boards, 28% have focused on online bulletin boards such as Craigslist, and only 12% have used social networking tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Younger workers also utilized traditional media such as newspapers (68%) but had more diversified strategies across electronic media, with 28% utilizing social networking media.
The results: 67% of older workers reported looking for a job for longer than a year, compared to 43% of younger workers under age 55. The lesson: it is not enough for Boomers to simply be able to type, text, and use technology; rather they must adapt to utilize these technologies to their fullest benefit.
Yet it may not be enough to take a “survival of the technological fittest” attitude toward Boomers. The fact of the matter is that Boomers for their own financial necessity and for the financial viability of their governments must remain part of the work force for several years to come. Governments around the world may find that re-focusing strategies and spending on providing incentives for companies who hire older workers, creating part-time work programs or retraining programs for older workers, and perhaps even educational grants to older workers may be a way to help maintain the effectiveness of all levels of the workforce. Could this be an acceptable revision to our social contracts?
Clash or Compliment of Generations?
Employers for their part may look to revising their recruitment strategies to be more inclusive of older workers and the value they add to the equation. Many myths and negative stereotypes surround older workers, such as arguments that they are a burden on company healthcare costs or that they are less productive or inflexible. However, healthcare costs may actually be less for older workers who no longer have dependent-age children. Companies may also find that as a group Boomers are more predictable and consistent workers than younger generations, rendering productivity levels deceiving when you compare speed to quality of work.
Remember that many Boomers are staying in the workforce because they view it as a means of achieving self-fulfillment and meeting personal goals. Generation Y workers entering the workforce tend to view their work as a mere stepping stone for achievement and can easily become dissatisfied with their workplaces if they do not see quick results in promotions or recognition.
Studies of intergenerational work teams has shown that once employees are able to abandon preconceived notions of their colleagues 10+ years younger or older than them, they are able to build dynamic and complementary partnerships. For example, younger workers may be able to physically produce a presentation more quickly with all the high-tech trimmings, but by collaborating with an older worker who may take the time to proofread, fact-check, and provide healthy rebuttals, you can achieve a holistically higher standard for reports.
Older workers may also impart wisdom on younger workers who may be impulsive or unfamiliar with more traditional methods of research and accomplishing tasks. I am reminded of the movie, Up in the Air starring George Clooney (himself a Boomer) as a professional downsizer who flies from city to city breaking the bad news to employees nationwide. His life is suddenly jostled when a young employee finds a way to cut costs by performing Clooney’s job by video conference instead of face-to-face firings. The clash of real-life versus real-time video teaches both characters a thing or two about the details that can be overlooked in our increasingly high tech world.
Employers and employees alike would do well to reconsider their attitudes toward older workers as their part in Global Re“wire”ment that must take place. Indeed as our life expectancies increase our ability to be meaningful contributors is prolonged as well and we would do well to recognize that in one another.
Generation X, Y, and Beyond
Perhaps the biggest dilemma we face is the wide range of needs the different generations currently in the workplace represent. Even once the Boomer Retirement Crisis, as it may one day be called, is over we will still need to ensure that younger generations have a solid foundation to build upon for the moving target that their golden years will likely become. To exhaust the re“wire”ment metaphor, what will it take for us to become “wireless” as societies so that individuals are not constrained by antiquated, one-size-fits-all systems of retirement planning that no longer have relevance to the flexibility are lives demand?
We have already seen that as our working years expand we must retrain for an updated skill set to remain relevant as well as reframe our roles in the workplace.
Not only will Employers will have to adjust their hiring models and perhaps education-sponsorship programs, but perhaps we will also need to re-examine our notions of “non discriminatory” benefits practices and realign them according to age groups and their particular concerns rather than applying them as one-size-fits-all strategies. The Government’s role in allowing Employers the flexibility and incentives to achieve these changes must also be in place.
Looking back at just the past 25 years we have already seen the mainstreaming of private retirement plans throughout Europe, North America, Asia, and parts of Latin America. In realistic terms, these private mechanisms of 401-Ks, RRSPs, AFORES, and others are more attractive means of earning retirement savings than any national pension would ever offer. In fact younger workers may even by cynical of their government’s ability to provide for them. At the same time, private retirement options are becoming defaults of benefits packages and may no longer be a significant differentiator to retain the best and brightest.
The road ahead for Generations X and Y in many aspects is yet to be paved. These generations must be active and pragmatic participants in the political and workplace discourses of today that will lay the foundation for their own retirements and livelihoods of tomorrow.
In the words of Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.
‘This information is believed to be correct as of the date published. It is not a substitute for legal advice and no liability attaches to its use. Specific and personal legal advice should be taken on any individual matter’.
“Approaching 65: A Survey of Baby Boomers Turning 65 years old”, American Association of Retired People (December 2010).
“Demographics and the Economy: Poverty Rates, Facts-at-a-Glance”, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (2008-2009).
“A Profile of American Baby Boomers”, MetLife Mature Markets Institute (2007).
Maria Heidkamp et al, “The New ‘Unemployables’: Older Job Seekers Struggle to Find Work During the Great Recession”, The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College (November 2010).
Pitt-Catsouphes, Marcie, “The Value of Multi-Generational Workplaces”, The Huffington Post (January 2011)