American Baby Boomers Don’t Love Their Jobs
The Great Resignation is being fuelled by a myriad of demographics. One major subsection is baby boomers—those born between roughly 1946 and 1964. As CNN reported in December 2021, “Last month, there were 3.6 million more Americans who had left the labor force and said they didn't want a job compared with November 2019. A whopping 90% of them were over 55.”
This trend of early retirement for boomers showed up in our recent survey as well. Of the 208 respondents in our survey who were over 54, 68% had recently quit their job (or were thinking about it). When asked how they planned to support themselves, just over half cited savings, social security, or retirement.
While increasing home prices and fears about COVID certainly play a part in this, another reason, according to CNN’s reporting, comes down to boomers’ experience in the workplace: “Employers aren't doing enough to lure people out of retirement. They're creating jobs, just not the ones people want.”
This is certainly the picture painted by our respondents aged over 54; undervalued and overworked, this cohort doesn’t feel passionate about their job, and even feels scared about the future of work.
Undervalued and overworked, this cohort doesn’t feel passionate about their job, and even feels scared about the future of work.
Let’s dive into the data to understand how this demographic is reacting to the Great Resignation.
Our study found that while those between the ages of 18 and 54 primarily left their jobs in search of a higher salary, those over 54 did so mostly because of stress and burnout:
Digging a little deeper, these older respondents felt less fulfilled and less passionate about their jobs overall. While 18 to 54-year-olds had a median score of 87 when asked how fulfilled they felt at work, over 54-year-olds scored only 77. Similarly, they were more likely to say that their job was just ‘ok’, as opposed to younger cohorts who said “I love it, it’s my passion.”
They also were markedly less likely to see their job as a big part of their self-identity, as opposed to the younger generations in our survey, with scores of 55 vs. 82, respectively:
Why might this be? Part of the reason could lie in how their work is perceived. For those who said they didn’t feel fulfilled at work, most said it was because either their work wasn’t valued (or there was no room for development), while younger respondents said it was because their work was boring:
These results paint a picture of work for older people, especially of the baby boomer generation, as unrewarding, stressful, and not particularly meaningful. While some workers in this age bracket may decide, if they are able, to retire and leave the workforce early, not everyone will be in this financial position.
Then there’s the ongoing question of what work means to different generations today, and the extent to which boomers may be frustrated with changing expectations in the workplace. For example, older people may be grappling with the gradual erasure of the boundary between our personal and working lives, the need to build competencies with an ever-expanding range of technology, and the general disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Lee Branstetter, director of the Center for the Future of Work at Carnegie Mellon University, explains, “Many people are living longer, and retirement at 65 is making less and less sense, as many people simply can’t accumulate enough wealth in a 30-year career to tide them over 40 or 50 years afterward.”
The Pew Research Center agrees: “It is unclear whether the pandemic-induced increase in retirement among older adults will be temporary or longer-lasting. Newly published labor force projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest it will be temporary. BLS projects large increases in labor force participation among older adults from 2020 to 2030, with nearly 40% of 65- to 69-year-olds being in the labor force by 2030, up from 33% in 2020.”
If many older workers feel out-of-touch with their work lives, this would leave a large chunk of the workforce likely relatively unhappy and demotivated. This is especially disheartening, since, as Lee explains, “many people want to continue working for the human interaction.”
These results paint a picture of work for older people, especially of the baby boomer generation, as unrewarding, stressful, and not particularly meaningful.
From a purely pragmatic perspective, there’s another big reason to keep boomers engaged and working longer—to capture their institutional knowledge. When an employee leaves a company for whatever reason, if their institutional knowledge—all of their contextual skills and know-how—isn’t well-documented for the next person to step into their shoes, inefficiencies can arise.
Sooner or later, this entire, exceptionally large generation will retire, creating a skills vacuum in its wake. Some industries might suffer labor shortages as other workers (many of them millennials), are tapped by employers to fill the demand, upskilling and reskilling when necessary.
It could certainly behoove employers to create more positive work experiences for these older, skilled workers, to help smooth this transition by keeping them around longer, and ensuring that they’re able to pass on their knowledge in the best conditions.
So, how can Learning and Development leaders make work a better place for mature employees, while ensuring their valuable knowledge can be passed on? One way is to ensure their learning needs are being actively solicited and met.
As Claire A. Simmers, professor emeritus in the Erivan K. Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. explains, “in general, the learning needs of Baby Boomers and seniors will be based on their previous career experiences and whether they are continuing to work in familiar career areas or if they are making career changes.”
They might even need extra encouragement here, as our survey revealed that, while younger generations are excited by the impact automation, market dynamics, and new technology will have on their careers in the future, those over 54 were more likely to be ‘scared’ by it:
Make sure you’re giving boomers ample opportunity to voice these needs, aligning training with their past work experiences, and valuing their previous work lives.
It will also be important to capture institutional knowledge easily and from these subject-matter experts themselves. Asking senior employees to engage with the L&D process by becoming course creators themselves could be a handy way to capture this knowledge, while also creating a meaningful human exchange in the process that shines value on this past experience.
Finally, our survey results reveal that many employees are looking to switch jobs to something more meaningful to them, while also not entirely sure they have the necessary skills to do so. These people cited self-directed learning and strong training programs as something that would boost their confidence.
Pairing more experienced workers through a coaching or mentorship program to help new hires that need to ramp up in a new area is one way of addressing the skills gaps that might result from baby boomer departures. It would also enable employees to finds work that was more meaningful to them, even if they have little prior experience.
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