Flex Strategies Help Keep Boomers in the Workforce

Since the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession left many workers’ initial retirement hopes in the dust, the majority of the biggest working generation, the baby boomers, are still at work — and might be for quite a while.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2008 and 2018, the portion of the labor force that’s 55 or older will increase by 43 percent. The bureau also estimates that by 2030 18 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 and older.

This places a heavy burden on employers: As workers consider sticking around longer, how can employers keep them engaged and productive as they reach 60, 70 or even 80 years old?

In light of this workforce dynamic, talent managers ought to consider flexible work programs, according to Samantha Greenfield, an employer engagement specialist at the Boston College Sloan Center on Aging & Work.

While much has been made of younger workers’ desires for flexible work options, the same can be said of aging boomers as well, Greenfield said. The value and expertise older workers bring to the table — their experience and ability to mentor younger workers, to name a few — makes them too valuable to let go.

“A lot of companies are realizing that the older worker has a lot more value than they used to give them credit for,” said Greenfield, who wrote a recent study with a group of Sloan researchers titled “Flex Strategies to Attract, Engage & Retain Older Workers.”

The study, which showcases flexible working programs of a few select employers, shows how flexibility has an especially profound effect on retaining older workers. The best flexibility programs, according to the study, are those that “address managers’ concerns about such things as trust, losing control and coaching older workers.”

One flexibility option, for instance, is what’s known as a “Snowbird Program,” an initiative aimed at allowing older workers to move and work in warmer climates during colder months.

Pharmacy and health store chain CVS Caremark has had such a program since 2004, and by many accounts has been one of the few organizations to implement it successfully.

By allowing its older workers — those aged 50 and up — to transfer among its roughly 7,000 retail outfits across the U.S., CVS has been able to increase the volume of older workers in its workforce. The segment made up 7 percent of CVS’ workforce in 1991, and has jumped to 22 percent as of 2011, according to the Sloan study.

Greenfield said the Snowbird program works well for CVS, whose business model is largely based on having trained pharmacists and store workers all across the country. Once winter rolls around for some CVS store workers, they head south and work in a new store for the season.

Only a small percentage of CVS’ employees — 1,000 of 200,000, according to the Sloan study — actually participated in it as of 2011, but Greenfield said even with low participation, the fact that CVS has the option available is comforting and considered a strong retention and attraction tool.

Other business models might not be as conducive to such a model, according to Karen Sumberg, a senior vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank focused on work-life and talent management issues. The proliferation of virtual working environments and telework has made the notion of a Snowbird program somewhat obsolete, she said.

For companies hoping to keep would-be retirees on board longer, organizations should consider phased retirement programs or other options that allow certain office workers to work on a project-by-project basis, Sumberg said. It would serve organizations well to prepare for this growing demographic shift sooner rather than later.

“Baby boomers are going to have to work [because of the recession] an average of about nine years more than they would like to,” Sumberg said. “And so I think the idea of mass retirement will happen, but is not happening as immediately as people had anticipated.”

Aside from the Snowbird initiative, the Sloan Center study examined a number of other flexible work options that serve older workers — phased retirement, compressed workweeks, flextime, part-year or annualized work, sabbatical, off-ramping and special project work. Each of these options enables older workers to seek a balance of the relaxation and recreation they value in retirement while allowing them to be productive employees.

Still, instead of just retaining their existing older employees, organizations should also consider attracting the demographic from the outside — those who may have been out of work some time because of the recession — for valuable knowledge sharing, even if it’s only on a limited basis, Greenfield said.

“I think we used to see flexibility as more for working parents, and now it’s equally important for the aging workforce,” Greenfield said. “They might [even] be grandparents — with the economy, they might have to start working again.”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@talentmgt.com.