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Canopy Advisory consultant Karen Larsen, second from right, works with a team at Graebel, which includes Gen X’ers, millennials and boomers. Photo by Kathleen Lavine, Denver Business Journal

Baby boomer Karen Larsen used to be afraid to talk about her grandson at work because it would draw attention to her age. Now, she has now found an encore career where her years of experience as a chief marketing officer are wildly sought after.

Baby boomers — usually defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, ages 53 to 71 — are staying in the workforce longer than previous generations.

The AARP says there are three generations in the workplace working side by side, with a fourth generation — known as the Centennials or Generation Z, born in 1996 and later — making its debut into the workforce.

Gone are the days when people in the workforce got their gold watch and waved goodbye to the team when they turned 65, the official retirement age when benefits were available. Now, the full benefit age is 66 for people born in 1943 to 1954 and will gradually will rise to age 67.

In Colorado in 1997, there were 186,614 people age 55 and older who reported themselves as employed, or 9 percent of the total working population. In 2016, that number climbed to 544,509 people or 22 percent of the total working population — making it the largest gain of any age group.

By comparison, in 1997, 25 to 34 years olds made up 26 percent of the workforce. But by 2016 they declined to 23 percent. And 40 to 54-year-olds were at 20 percent in 1997 and 20 percent in 2016.

Having all these generations in the workplace is changing everything:

Some boomers are joining the gig economy, becoming CEOs and CMOs on demand.

Some companies are asking millennials to mentor boomers.

Some companies are offering voluntary buyouts for employees 52 and older to make way in upper management for Gen Xers and millennials.

And some companies are hiring experts on workplace culture to show them how 60-year-olds and 25-years old can communicate.

“I would say the four-generational workforce is a work in progress,” Larsen said. “We do not have the right formula yet. It’s challenging and it requires tremendous respect and all the listening skills you can muster.

“You have to have a fundamental belief that every individual has something to offer.”

Harder to retire
There are many reasons why people are working longer, said Katica Roy, CEO of Pipeline, a Denver-based company working on gender equity in the workplace.

“It used to be you go and work for a company and you would work there for 30 years and you would get a pension – that you typically would not have to pay for, or pay a lot for – and then you would retire,” Roy said.

Now, pensions are scarce in corporate America and 401(k) programs, which were originally designed as tax vehicles and supplements to pensions, have become more important in saving for their retirement.

“You would retire with a pension in hand as well as health care,” Roy said. “You had that economic security. Much of that is really out the window.”

Now, add the increased cost of housing, increased cost of medical care, increased college tuition for children and cost of care for aging parents.

“You have downward pressure that makes it harder for people to retire at 62 or 65,” Roy said.

Roy said women tend to top out earnings potential in their 40s and men top out in their 60s.

“What happens with older women is there already is gender bias. When they get older, they have age lumped on top of all that.”

Roy speaks with company CEOs about the value of retaining and promoting women.

“We have really low unemployment in Colorado. We need talent. I would tell employers to look at it from an economic perspective. We are going to pay for older woman one way or the other. We either support them through Social Security and other public services, or we do the right thing and we create roles for them because they are educated and hard workers and they are a good population to employ.”

CMO on demand
Boomer Karen Larsen was a chief marketing officer at a company doing $11 billion in annual revenue. She had expat work assignments in India and the U.K. After she retired in 2014, she spent a year traveling and checking off personal goals, like learning to speak Spanish.

Her re-entry into the workplace began in 2016 as a volunteer at a nonprofit that does global work. The person she reported to was much younger.

“The first day, I met my boss, I was conscious of the age difference,” Larsen said. “But now we joke that she is Anne Hathaway and I am Robert DeNiro, like in the movie The Intern,” where a 70-year-old retiree goes to work for a millennial.

Volunteering was a good way for Larsen to re-enter the workplace. But she wanted more. Through Denver-based Canopy Advisory Group, Larsen joined the gig economy – and now she is a CMO on demand.

“What I loved about [Canopy] — there was not one thought of ‘You’re too experienced, too old, too expensive’,” she said.

Griffen O’Shaughnessy, a CPA and an attorney, and Brooke Borgen, who had 15 years experience in global management consulting and nonprofit management, founded Canopy in 2009 because they saw a need for a professional contingent workforce.

When they formed the company, they had in mind building a cadre of consultants who were Gen Xers and millennial working parents interested in short-term or mission-critical projects with companies in the $5 million to $15 million in revenue range.

But they discovered that retirees were just as interested in flexible schedules and part-time work.

“They may want to augment their income or they are saying, ‘I have a lot to give. I want to be intellectually stimulated and love the camaraderie,” O’Shaughnessy said.

About one-third of the 75 consultants ready for hire at Canopy are retirees.

“It has been fascinating to us, at various stages of people’s career, how attractive this model is.” O’Shaughnessy said.

And word is out, she said. Many companies are asking for a more experienced manager to help with readying company before raising money; before going public; or before the launch of a new product.

“Some clients want someone more senior, who had years and a lifetime of experience behind them,” she said.

Seeking out boomers
A study by Intuit Inc., an accounting and tax preparation software company, predicts that by 2020, 40 percent of workers will be independent contractors. Some estimates that boomers already make up half of the contingent workforce “are coming true,” O’Shaughnessy said.

For Larsen, age is a differentiator working in her favor. AARP lists Denver as one of “10 Great Cities for the 50+ Job Seeker” because Denver has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2.3 percent.

Now, more companies are seeking out boomers for their experience.

In addition to working on contingent basis with Canopy, Larsen was recruited to work part-time as marketing adviser with Aurora-based workforce and workplace mobility company Graebel, where she runs a seven-member team that includes Gen Xers and millennials.

“I think it’s very personal,” Larsen said about boomers staying in the workforce. “What works for one person does not work for another. “My DNA [is that] I have a strong work ethic. I have to channel my energy. I work 50 hours a week — that’s less than I used to.”

In 2014, journalist Rebecca Knight, writing for the Harvard Business Review, dubbed what was happening in the workplace as “generational tension” and provided ways to avoid it.

With boomers staying longer, Gen Xers making up about 34 percent of the workforce and millennials making up about 35 percent, the question: Can they get along?

According to PwC’s annual Global CEO survey in 2015, about 64 percent of those polled said they had a strategy to promote diversity and inclusion. However, only 8 percent said they included age as a dimension of the diversity and inclusion strategy.

When companies find themselves with multiple generations in their workplace and communication is frosty, about half of the CEOs think they have an age issue, said Whitney Walpole, founder and president of Denver-based Culture Counts, which provides leadership coaching for executive teams.

“They say, ‘We need age training,’ and I say, ‘That won’t go well,” she said.

Take a case where during a team meeting a 65-year-old says, “What we used to do is this…” And the 25-year-old says, “I’m sick and tired of hearing what we used to do. I have a whole new way of doing something.”

That is the classic scenario, Walpole said. And some companies are losing 50 percent of efficiency because employees can’t communicate.

“They won’t get a return on investment if they just try to solve the 65-year-old problem. They need to talk to people about how to talk people.”

“For us, a workplace gets the best return on investment, in dealing with this dilemma, if they treat it more like a communication issue than an age issue.”

‘They need purpose’
It appears the generations will have to figure it out. Boomers are gradually lifting the median age of U.S. employees.

In 1994, the median age of U.S. employees was 37.7 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2014, people in the workforce were older, with the median age being 41.9. And by 2024, the median age of U.S. workers is expected to be 42.4.

A recent survey by Willis Towers Watson — a risk management, insurance brokerage and advisory company — shows that one in four employees believe they won’t be able to retire until they are 70.

One challenge that happens when boomers stay in the workplace longer is stagnation in upward mobility for the younger professionals.

In February, Fidelity Investments, one of metro Denver’s biggest investment firms, offered 3,000 of its employees age 52 and older voluntary buyouts. About 50 percent of those eligible took the offer.

The goal of the offer, which was companywide, was twofold: reduce expenses and free up opportunities for younger employees to advance their careers at the company. Fidelity did not release the number of employees in metro Denver who took the buyout.

Jenifer Trujillo, who at 39 falls at the cusp of Gen X and millennial, was promoted after one of the metro Denver managers took the buyout.

She’s been at Fidelity since 2013 and was among the first group of employees to move into the company’s Greenwood Village offices, which in 2016 was redesigned with movable furniture, standing desks, small and large work rooms and television and game rooms. The new workplace design had millennials in mind.

“I lead a team of millennials. What is important to them is different,” Trujillo said. “They need purpose. They need to feel there is something that empowers the greater good.”

Trujillo was a manager in retirement solutions. She estimated that she was on path to get promoted but it would have taken her one to two years longer, she said.

She recently moved into a senior management position.

“I felt good,” she said. “That [voluntary buyout] was generous. Nobody was forced out.”

Trujillo said she did not see stagnation in Fidelity’s career ladder because too many boomers were staying. But she said the voluntary buyout program could help with employee retention of Gen Xers and millennials.

“When they see movement happen, they want to stay because they believe long-term they have opportunities,” she said.

Larsen, who worked with U.S. West Inc., Western Union and First Data, said she hopes she is teaching her younger team mates skills and survival strategies. She’s comfortable with her colleagues. She even talks about her grandson.

“I try to be a good role model in … treating every person with dignity,” she said. “The thing I have learned from millennials – I thought I had work-life balance. [Millennials] get it. They have the idea that work is a wonderful part of your life, but it isn’t your entire identity.”

Monica Mendoza covers banking and financial services, legal services, retail, the economy and economic development, and sports business. Phone: 303-803-9230.

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