After Decades of Much Talk and Limited Action, It’s Time for Creative Exits

By Paul Rupert, Rupert and Company

We are in the midst of a great transition in who makes up the American workforce. The massive infusion of diverse and younger workers is the object of almost obsessive attention. Many efforts at inclusion are underway: inter-generational initiatives abound; flextime and telework are nearly as common as bottled water; and new parental leave practices are announced nearly every day. These practices are not uniform, but in general the welcome mat is clearly out for newcomers.

It’s a different story for older workers. Ranging in length of service from 10-40 years, the contributions of the so-called Boomers are not regularly celebrated. The mat they face is typically less welcoming. This cohort carries decades of institutional knowledge, but its value is often under-estimated or un-noticed. Some Boomers may be seen as energetic and creative, but many are perceived in a negative light as worn-out and unimaginative clock-punchers. Upon reaching a certain age they are expected to retire.

Within the older workforce there is great diversity – and there can be greater inclusion

There is a tendency that spans decades to extol a newer form of labor over a familiar one, to value the young over the old. If the supply of talent were evenly distributed by generational slice and available in unending abundance, this supply strategy might work. But as we emerge from the Great Recession and approach statistical full employment, the endless talent search is taking on a new urgency.

As the demands for an adequate workforce strengthen, they lead to common goals in what companies need. But to date there is not the same consensus regarding older workers as marks Millennials. The assumptions about talent vary significantly from person to person, from group to group and from firm to firm. Many assumptions about older workers have hardened into myths that stand in the way of their full utilization –especially near the end of their careers.

When widespread assumptions shackle innovation

It is more than challenging to imagine letting people phase into retirement when there is ambivalence about the general contribution of older workers. If the myths were true that older workers are more expensive, less productive, resistant to change and roadblocks to promotions, arranging their departure at the earliest possible time could make business sense. At the least, it would strongly discourage any thought of carefully defining Respectful Exits at the close of careers.

But a steady trickle of organizations are rethinking all these assumptions. They are working to reconcile their pressing needs with an inclusive view of their actual talent demographics. They are inventorying key knowledge and mentoring strategies. And they are seeing the value of retaining productive people at reduced cost. They are designing respectful exit strategies for productive older workers.

What accounts for this difference between employers in the degree of inclusion they practice? Do some companies just get all the “good ones?” It would seem that the modest number of employers who are putting out the welcome mat out for their long-term employees share a number of assumptions and practices. Typically they operate on a distinct set of beliefs:

  • Differentiation need not end up in discrimination. Many employers worry about age discrimination and lawsuits. Allowing one person to ease into retirement on Path “A” while another pursues “B” or “C” might be risky. The default choice: require or allow the same thing for everyone. But those who implement proven, individual contribution-based processes can achieve fairness and avoid this trap.
  • Part-time work yields proportional, not partial value. Respectful Exits are designed to prioritize and retain the highest value of a position. Maintaining strong contribution while reducing costs is the goal.
  • Perishable knowledge exists and can be shared successfully. Starting with a thorough inventory, a systematic transfer process is developed. Neither random nor shapeless, it is marked by clear goals, plans and monitoring.
  • Diversity is not just a word, but the valuing of difference. Most organizations advertise their commitment to diversity. Older workers may represent the last frontier. Breaking through stereotypes to support deep variations in the ways people choose to handle the end of their work lives represents true support for difference.
  • The litany of obstacles is more litany than obstacle. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the seemingly daunting task of dealing with pension, social security, health insurance and other challenges to Respectful Exits. Champions of new ways of working recognize these as one more set of tasks to be worked through. Period.

Why employers and employees are turning to Respectful Exits and away from uniform retirements

While Millennials flood the workplace, the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce is those 50 and older. Following the slow recovery from the Great Recession, millions who might have retired earlier are seeking continued work to extend earnings and re-build depleted savings.

And then there’s life expectancy. We have read and heard for years that “people are living longer.” That’s fascinating as a general observation. But the actual data is far more intriguing. The slow steady aging of the population has not necessarily been matched by later retirements or longer tenures.

Average life expectancy, mixed race & gender

1980 = 74 1990 = 75 2000 = 77 2010 = 79

Assuming static retirement ages, today’s retiree would have access to an average of five more years of golf, shuffleboard or time with the grandchildren. Good for some, deadly for others. This large and diverse cohort wants different things. Some seek conventional retirement and others prefer Respectful Exits.

For both employer and employee, the g
reatest reward comes in reconciling the unique needs and contributions of each. Respectful Exits embrace the range of creative options that build superior outcomes all the way around.

Follow this blog to see what pioneers are doing to value older workers and redesign retirement as we know it.

© 2016 Rupert & Company. All Rights Reserved

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