The majority of working baby boomers would stay on the job longer if employers allowed them to shift into semi-retirement — but most workplaces don’t provide that option, a new survey suggests.
With unemployment in Canada at record lows and a labour shortage poised to hit critical levels when boomers hang up their hats, semi-retirement could be one way to help manage that crisis.
Since working longer puts more money in people’s wallets when they do retire, that increased spending power would benefit the economy as well.
Conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of staffing agency Express Employment Professionals, the poll found that 76 per cent of Canadian baby boomers respondents said they’d opt for a flexible work schedule if allowed, while 60 per cent would choose reduced hours with reduced benefits.
The online survey of 500 Canadian workers aged 54 to 72 suggests a disconnect between the willingness of the enormous baby boomer cohort to stick around during the labour shortage, and a lack of options for those who’d like a gradual exit from the workplace.
The survey also found that 56 per cent of respondents said they’d like to transition to a consulting-style role, if given the opportunity.
Yet only 30 per cent of the boomers surveyed said their employer offered any sort of semi-retirement option. Additionally, only 36 per cent said their employers had ever brought a former employee out of retirement.
Teresa Pitman, who works full time as a communications co-ordinator for Family and Children Services of the Waterloo Region, says she’d welcome a semi-retirement arrangement when she’s ready to scale back.
“I would like to be able to work here part time, and I think that I will continue to have something to contribute,” she said. “I really like the people here that I work for and that I work with. It would be really good to be able to keep that relationship going … but without it being full time.”
Rethinking all-or-nothing retirement
If Pitman wasn’t working full-time, perhaps her hours would be flexible enough to avoid poor road conditions, she says, like the blizzard she drove through on her way to work Friday.
Her top priority: Spending time with her 10 grandchildren.
“I’d love to have the flexibility to be more available to them,” she said.
Employment experts say we may want to rethink our all-or-nothing definitions of retirement.
Jessica Culo owns several Express Employment franchises in the Edmonton area and is the Canadian spokesperson for the company, which also has locations in the U.S. and South Africa.
Even though Alberta is still recovering from the provincial recession of 2016 and 2017, she says, even employers there can’t ignore the potential problems posed by a significant increase in retirements in as little as two years from now.
“We all know what it’s like to be in an applicant-short market: It’s expensive, it’s not fun, it inhibits growth,” Culo said. “The leaders of organizations have got to have that foresight.”
Putting in place semi-retirement arrangements that could help with the labour shortage will require “being more creative on the side of the employers,” she said.
That could mean allowing older staff members to work flexible hours, a shortened workweek, shorter shifts or working remotely to cut commuting time. It could also include transitioning people into consultancy roles to work on a project basis.
Making room for mentoring
Culo says all of those tools could help address another critical aspect of boomer retirement that the survey highlighted: ensuring critical knowledge doesn’t walk out the door when they do.
Only 40 cent of respondents say they’ve passed at least half of the knowledge required for their positions on to younger staff members, and 51 per cent don’t believe their employers have adequate succession plans.
Culo says boomers are willing to mentor — 82 per cent of poll respondents said as much, in fact — but in most cases they’re not doing it. “Probably because there aren’t really systems or practices or processes that allow for that.”
Part-time workers and consultants could slide nicely into mentoring and training positions, she says, but it may take a mind shift on behalf of management.
“It may mean adding to your overhead by payrolling someone to take on that purely mentorship role.”
In many cases, it won’t even have occurred to employers to extend people’s time at work through semi-retirement, says Rosemary Venne, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business who specializes in human resources and demographics.
“Flexibility is not something that employers are good at,” she said.
A 2011 paper she penned with celebrated demographer David Foot, the author of Boom, Bust and Echo, explained that too little attention has been paid to the impact of increasing life expectancy on retirement policies.
The paper — entitled “The long goodbye” — made the case for partial retirement schemes that remove barriers to going part-time, such as pension disincentives.
That makes sense when you consider that in 1965, when the retirement age was set at 65, the average life expectancy was 71.9 years. Today average life expectancy in Canada is around 80 for men and 84 for women.
Keeping a hand in work can be good for emotional health and life satisfaction as well.
“Partial retirement is such an ideal thing, because more and more of our self-concept is tied up in work,” Venne said. “We’ve increased our educational attainment. To give that up when you retire is difficult for some people.”
In some ways, Teresa Pitman is the ideal retiree. She has spent long portions of her career as a freelancer, and as the author of 18 books about baby care, she can turn to her writing career to keep her busy, engaged and sharp.
“I have writing that I’m quite confident that will always continue. But I do know people a bit older than me who are sometimes a little bit at sea. Their life had been organized around work. I just see that they’re not quite sure what to do with themselves.”