Editor’s note: this post was originally published Jan 12, 2010.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the “unretired” – seniors who are returning to the workforce in droves for economic or personal reasons. I call this formidable group “Gen U™” because they represent an astounding number of people who have a completely different mindset from that of prior retired generations. Thankfully, smart companies are beginning to embrace their value, wisdom and experience.
In fact, even those who had plans to retire will not. A recent study by the AARP revealed that eight out of 10 of the 80 million Baby Boomers will work part- or full-time rather than retire. Those 64 million “unretiring” Americans will constitute the biggest demographic shift in the American workforce since Baby Boomers emerged.
The reasons Americans are returning to work in record numbers include, first and foremost, economic demands triggered by the deepest postwar recession, but also such factors as boredom, wanting more camaraderie, mental stimulation or a sense of purpose. Gen U laid the foundation for the high technology revolution and challenged the status quo of business in the 1960s. Now, they are challenging what we traditionally knew as “retirement” — to the benefit of progressive organizations.
Granted, we’re in the midst of high unemployment, and this is a difficult time for more entrees into the workforce. But as the rebound emerges, more companies will seek a wide range of talent, as well as a healthy age mix that is more representative of our society. (An interesting report on this shift is at BusinessWeek.com.)
Consider the sheer numbers alone. Currently there are:
• 80 million baby boomers
• 46 million Generation Xers
• 78 million millennials (Gen Y)
A Few Key Facts
Gen U’s contributions reside not only in their skills sets garnered over many years, which can be passed onto Gen X, Gen Y, and Baby Boomers. They have also learned a thing or two about people skills — something often lost on today’s frenzied, high-tech workplace. These facts further underscore that this shift is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
1. 93% of the growth in the American labor market from now until 2016 will be from workers 55 and older
2. Only 20% of retirees now feel very confident they have enough money to live comfortably throughout their retirement, down from 41% in 2007. [Source: Employee Benefit Research Institute.]
3. 36% of those 56 or older are still working — more than ever. That’s more than twice as many as in 1984 [Source: 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.]
4. 9.5 million Americans are considering at least a partial return to the workforce because of the economic downturn. [Source: Charles Schwab Corporation.]
Companies and members of Gen U alike can tap into this opportunity and mutually benefit – through understanding, effort and by abandoning stereotypical behavior. Hiring managers must be savvy about age discrimination laws at all times, but particularly when working with Gen U – as early as the interview stage.
In general, there must be sensitivity to unproven myths and how they manifest themselves, not just for the sake of productivity, but for human decency as well. Similarly, a work veteran of 45+ years who reports to a 30-something with specialized skills may find it challenging. But the Gen Uer, but must treat him or her, too, with respect.
This shift can certainly be a win-win. Gen U can be an educated, energetic and rededicated group of individuals — many of whom are taking online courses to upgrade their skills. These returning seniors add numerous assets to the workforce:
• Experience: The typical Gen U reentering the workforce is a senior professional with significant depth of knowledge. Technology and other tactical skills can be taught, but there is no substitute for experience.
• Interpersonal Intelligence: Human relations skills are perhaps the most valuable skill a person can have in this increasingly high-tech world. They are hard to teach and aren’t developed overnight. Being an “office diplomat” is often developed over a lifetime of work.
• Virtual Team Availability: Global companies have employees scattered throughout the world who must work with many cultures, diverse beliefs and work styles. Skilled project managers with years of organizational and time-management experience can help keep team players on track and productive.
• Mentoring: The workforce benefits by being able to tap into a Gen U’s area of expertise as mentors who can pass along shortcuts to growth and success.
• Part-Time or On-Call Access: After the recent economic crisis, more companies are eyeing the benefits of having workers there when you need them. Gen Uers benefit from having a flexible schedule that allows them to work around their other activities or financial needs.
Smoothing Over the Rough Edges
Today’s need for a humanized workplace can be well served by such timeless, valued traditions as business etiquette and diplomacy — tenets of business practices applied more extensively in the heyday of the Gen Uers. These skills are the antithesis of what I call Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT) behavior where non-savvy bosses and co-workers can wreak havoc in the workplace and diminish company’s profits.
With age often comes an ability to see the forest for the trees and put pettiness aside. Perhaps Gen Uers understand well the meaning of Bonnie Raitt’s lyrics in “Nick of Time”: “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” At work, they can see the larger picture, adding Gen-U-ine value to enlightened companies.