Why You Need a ‘Retiree’ Strategy Now

Working seniors are challenging organizations to develop programs focused on their retention.
By: | December 12, 2018 • 11 min read

Magdalena McCloskey’s life has been anything but ordinary. Born in Ottawa, Ill., in the depths of the Great Depression, her parents separated and divorced—a rarity at the time—when she was a small child. McCloskey went to live with her paternal grandparents in St. Louis, where she was educated by the Sisters of Loretto, a Catholic community that dates back to 1812.

Upon graduation, McCloskey felt a calling to enter the sisterhood, where she served as a nun, teacher and principal. After 18 years, she came to the realization “there was nothing more for [her] to do in that life,” so she returned to secular living. Shortly after, the former nun married a former priest and the couple embarked on a life together, raising two children, founding an alternative school in Spokane, Wash., and launching a number of business ventures that proved largely unsuccessful.

Following her husband’s passing in 2015, McCloskey joined a senior softball league, worked briefly at a Walgreens store, and moved to Denver to live with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson. It was there, at age 86, she began the next chapter of her storied life—as a caregiver for Omaha, Neb.-based Home Instead Senior Care.

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McCloskey works two mornings a week, providing in-home care to a couple experiencing memory loss, and occasionally picks up extra shifts when her schedule allows. She finds great satisfaction in the work and feels her life experiences, particularly her time as a nun and raising her children, prepared her to care for seniors who haven’t been as fortunate as she when it comes to physical and mental health.

While McCloskey’s life story has been unique in many ways, the idea of working during what has traditionally been considered “retirement years” is becoming more common. Longer lifespans have increased the amount of savings needed to live out one’s golden years. That, combined with the negative impact of the 2008 recession on retirement accounts, has given many seniors little choice but to continue—or return to—working long after previous generations would have headed off into the sunset.

“The reality is, people have the potential of living longer and healthier than at any other time in history, which has implications for how we think about our working lives, relative to our years in retirement,” says Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies in Los Angeles. “Saving and planning for a 30- or 40-year retirement is out of reach for many, and working longer is a very common-sense solution.”

Nearly four-fifths (79 percent) of all employees expect to continue working during their retirement years, according to a recent survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Expectations don’t always match up to reality, however: Half of all current retirees left the workforce before age 62, reports EBRI, and 60 percent of seniors who lose their jobs end up retiring involuntarily because they cannot find a replacement job, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Erasing the Expiration Date

Employers are well aware of employees’ plans to continue working, according to Transamerica’s 18th Annual Retirement Survey. Of the 1,800 employers surveyed last year, 70 percent say their employees expect to work past 65, with 74 percent reporting that employees plan to continue working either full- or part-time after they retire. Yet, the vast majority of organizations have not put programs in place to better accommodate senior workers.

TCRS found just 32 percent offer flexible schedules, 31 percent enable workers to shift from full- to part-time and 21 percent allow senior workers to take on jobs that are less stressful or demanding. When it comes to helping older workers gradually transition out of the workforce, a mere 20 percent of employers offer a formal phased-retirement program.

Employers’ hesitancy to hire seniors or create programs to retain those already in their ranks is often due to an outdated view that workers have “an expiration date,” according to Jeff Schwartz, human capital principal for New York-based Deloitte Consulting. Thus, their career models are based around a structure that “times out.”

“Most career models are based on a very traditional three-box model: You are educated for 20 to 22 years, you work for 25 years, then you retire,” says Schwartz. “If you live to be 100, your career could be 50 or 60 years. Most companies are not creating programs to focus on the 50- to 70-year-old cohort in their workforce.”

Organizations often shy away from phased-retirement programs out of concern they encourage older employees to leave and take all their institutional knowledge with them, according to TCRS’ Collinson. While it’s counter-intuitive to think of phased retirement as an employee-retention tool, she says, such programs are quite effective at keeping senior employees in the workplace because they provide the flexibility employees need to make a gradual transition.

“Many older workers want to continue working, but they don’t want all the stress that comes with an 8-to-5 job,” says Collinson. “Without a phased-retirement program, the employee just retires because it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.”

Granted, some industries have been at the vanguard of the senior-working movement for quite a while, says Patricia Milligan, senior partner and global leader of the multinational client group at New York-based Mercer. Among the first was healthcare, where a drastic shortage of nurses, radiologists and technicians forced hospitals, clinics and other facilities to adopt creative strategies for hanging onto older workers. Financial services, energy, consumer-packaged goods and manufacturing have also recognized the value seniors bring to the workplace and have launched initiatives to recruit and retain them.

Embracing “UnRetirement”

As the number of senior Americans continues to explode, Milligan says, companies that provide services or products geared toward that population are especially keen on tapping into their vast knowledge and experience. At Home Instead, for example, one-third of senior caregivers are themselves over age 60, according to Jackie Froendt, human resources director. Some, like McCloskey, entered the organization at an advanced age through referrals from other senior employees, while others sought employment as a result of the company’s UnRetire Yourself public-information program.

Seniors are encouraged to “rewrite [their] retirement,” using resources available at www.unretireyourself.com. From UnRetirement success stories and articles on ageism, the multigenerational workforce and what to do if you realize you “retired before your time” to an UnRetire Youself quiz, the site aims to help seniors identify the ideal “unretirement job.”

“It could spark some interest in someone who has retired fully from their career but feels like something is missing,” says Froendt. “It’s really about educating the older worker to see what the next step is for them, where they can add value and what would fulfill them. If that’s with Home Instead Senior Care, that’s great, but if may be with another employer and that’s OK, too.”

While a new senior employee like McCloskey may opt to work an extremely limited schedule, others have been with Home Instead for a number of years and may find themselves looking to transition into retirement. Through the Pathways program, management works closely with the employee to help map out his or her final working years. That could entail a reduction in hours, a job change or a different set of responsibilities. At the same time, Froendt says, the company wants to ensure the transfer of knowledge from those older employees to their younger colleagues before they leave.

Passing the Baton

For Zeeland, Mich.-based office-furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, ensuring the smooth transfer of institutional knowledge is crucial, as more than 25 percent of the company’s 8,000 employees are over age 55. All employees over age 60 with at least five years of service are eligible for the company’s FlexRetirement program, which allows them to phase out of the workforce over a six-month to two-year period, according to Kim Smit, HR/performance accountability project manager. Employees who want to begin stepping down are required to participate in a 30-minute meeting with their team leader and HR representative to discuss the impact on the work group. The employee is also given a template to draft a transition plan that lays out which responsibilities he or she will retain and which will be shifted to another employee. The plan facilitates the transfer of knowledge, ensuring the senior employee passes along critical information to successors.

“[Herman Miller leaders] recognized a long time ago that they had a lot of people who were important to the success of their business who were reaching retirement age,” says Jacquelyn James, director of Sloan Research Network on Aging & Work and research professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education in Chestnut Hill, Mass. “They developed a very elaborate process for allowing people to make a decision about when they want to retire and, in doing so, make plans for their ultimate departure so they don’t create a brain drain.”

Those senior workers who aren’t ready to begin phasing into retirement have a number of flexible options to help them remain engaged and productive, while recognizing their needs and preferences may have changed. In addition to standard flexible-schedule options, they can opt for FlexShare, which allows for the sharing of responsibilities of one full-time job among multiple people; FlexPlace, which enables employees to work in different locations; or FlexPartTime, which allows workers to try out part-time schedules to determine if they are ready to begin stepping down from full-time work.

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Those seniors who wish to escape the brutal Michigan winters for warmer climates can opt into the company’s FlexYear program, which enables them to take a six-, eight-, 10- or 12-week unpaid leave, but still retain company benefits. The program is available to all employees, regardless of age, but Smit is seeing “retirement-eligible employees” increasingly taking advantage of it, with some using the time away to assess whether they’re ready to leave the workforce completely. It also enables the company to determine whether it is prepared for that employee’s eventual departure.

“The challenge is backfilling them while they are gone, but it’s been a great opportunity to say, ‘What are we going to do when they’re gone? Do we have somebody ready?’ ” says Smit.

Whether they phase out gradually or retire in a more traditional full-stop manner, senior employees of Herman Miller often find they miss the working world, according to Heather Brazee, director of employee benefits and wellness. “A fair amount of people” end up coming back on a very limited basis or perhaps even as contractors, she says. That comes as no surprise to Milligan, who says longer lifespans will necessitate the creation of new career models that no longer assume seniors will be leaving the workforce at some predetermined point—if at all.

“This notion of ‘you are born, you get educated, you go to work and you retire’ will be gone within the next decade,” says Milligan. “In its place will be a workforce strategy that assumes people are going to come in and out of the workforce for 60, 70, 80 years. That’s really profound.”

Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter, covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]