Live from NCOF: Don’t Let Those Boomers Retire Just Yet

Schaumburg, IL—Full-time workers ages 55-70 outnumber those ages 18-24 by three to one. As an employer, that means you need to hold on to your baby-boomer employees and reevaluate your attitudes toward younger workers. That was a focal point of Marilyn Moats Kennedy’s Monday luncheon speech at the National Conference on Operations and Fulfillment.

Kennedy, of management consulting firm Moats-Kennedy, began with a discussion of the five cohorts in the workplace today. The oldest group, the preboomers (those born between 1934 and 1945), aren’t going gently into retirement, she noted. “As long as they keep working, they believe the Grim Reaper won’t find them,” Kennedy said, only half-jokingly.

The boomers, whom Kennedy defined as those born between 1946 and 1959, account for 40% of the population and 38% of the full-time workforce. “They’ve set the tone and decided the rules of engagement in the workplace,” Kennedy said. Those rules include a love of meetings and the expectation of complete participation; the need for consensus; and “ecstatic submission.” Boomers don’t just want everyone to agree and approve; they want everyone involved to fully endorse whatever decision has been made. Their attitude, said Kennedy, is “get with the program or die…and busters and netsters [the two youngest workplace cohorts] would rather die.”

Bridging the gap between the boomers and the busters are the cuspers, those born between 1960 and 1968. Cuspers account for 11% of the population and of the full-time workforce. Kennedy says this generation ushered in three particularly notable attitudinal changes. For starters, they are the generation of delayed maturation—moving out on their own later than previous generations, getting married later, starting families later.

“It means you don’t have to be serious about your career in your 20s,” Kennedy said, which is troubling for employers used to hiring workers fresh out of school.

Cuspers also believe that work must have meaning, an attitude that the younger generations have adapted as well. And they are the peacemakers in the workplace, able to work with both the more-driven boomers and the more-individualistic busters and netsters.

Unfortunately for employers, cuspers aren’t that interested in moving into management, Kennedy continued. They’d rather go into business for themselves—another trait they share with the younger generations.

The busters, born between 1969 and 1978, make up 20% of the population and 18% of the full-time workforce; the netsters, born between 1979 and 1988, account for 18% of population and only 3% of the full-time workforce, though that will grow as the cohort comes of age. They, too, are marked by delayed maturation and, even more so than the cuspers, they “don’t want to work for somebody else,” Kennedy said. “They want to work for themselves.”

This ties in with another trait that differentiates the busters and netsters from the boomers: They tend not to be team players—evidenced, said Kennedy, by the fact that the most popular sports in high school today aren’t football and basketball but running and swimming.

For that reason, Kennedy said, employers need to “stop flogging teamwork” as a means of motivating younger workers. “When you talk to your younger employees, they notice a hypocrisy: You talk about teamwork but reward the stars, because that’s capitalism.”

To attract younger employees, Kennedy said, it’s critical to offer “episodic work”—enough flexibility to enable workers to set their own terms regarding schedules, number of hours worked, and the like. “The two youngest groups want to be self-employed, and everything that gives them the illusion of self-employment works.”

And don’t count on obtaining long-term loyalty and retention from these younger workers. Turnover and recapture will be the focus of most human-resources professionals going forward, Kennedy warned.

Retaining good employees for years—ideally, for decades—of course offers numerous advantages for a business, in terms of retaining depth of knowledge and continuity and reducing recruitment expenses. This is especially important as the boomers near what had traditionally been retirement age. “The companies that win are the ones that keep their boomers longer,” said Kennedy.

The good news is that the boomers, in their desire to keep aging at bay and their need to work hard as well as play hard, aren’t necessarily seeking to drop out of the workforce at age 65 or 70. This in turn leads to what Kennedy described as one of the biggest challenges going forward: “Can we bring the boomers into the computer age and keep them there?” That entails ensuring that they aren’t simply “familiar” with the latest software and systems but really have them down pat.

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