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Delayed Retirement: Good News, Bad News, and New News

The Wall Street Journal today tells that more workers are delaying their retirement plans, largely due to last year’s financial meltdown, which wiped out their nest eggs.  The Journal says many companies aren’t complaining about having experienced workers staying longer on the job. Yet this presents an obstacle to the advancement of younger workers, leading some enterprises to take imaginative steps to ensure advancement opportunities.

As of June, the Journal reports, more than 1 in 4 (27%) of workers were age 55 or over, which means that under current rules they will be eligible to start collecting Social Security and Medicare within the next 10 years. But many of those workers don’t plan on retiring when their turn comes.  In a survey of workers age 25 and over, conducted earlier this year by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, some three-quarters (74%) of the respondents plan to retire at age 65 or older, or not at all. That’s up from about 6 in 10 (62%) of workers just 2 years ago.

For many employers, keeping experienced hands on board delays the impending headache of replacing large numbers of retiring boomers, but not everyone in management is celebrating. Among those who have serious concerns are people concerned about the future of the scientific workforce. The Journal quotes David Dobkin, dean of the faculty at Princeton University, who says fewer than half of the typical number of faculty are considering retirement, which Dobkin fears will result in fewer openings and institutional stagnation in many departments. That’s a serious problem for early career scientists seeking faculty posts, and, as the feature in Science Careers
last month pointed out, many tenured faculty face the
challenge of going stale, and need something to take their careers in a
new direction.

Some companies have found interesting ways of dealing with this problem. IBM is attacking the senior worker glut with online tools to boost its internal mentoring program that encourages older workers to share knowledge with their younger counterparts. While this kind of mentoring isn’t new, IBM’s program adds an interesting wrinkle, creating a reverse-mentoring channel to help older workers learn from their younger colleagues about topics younger workers know best, such as social networking.

Other companies are creating new opportunities in their organizations that keep the older workers gainfully employed but allow them to make contributions in different ways. One example is Jones Edmunds & Associates Inc., an engineering company in Gainesville, Florida, which has created career tracks with lateral or even downward mobility, to train senior managers in new skills and open opportunities for younger staff. The program’s manager says that senior managers are willing to take these new opportunities with the expectation that they will have the opportunity to mentor their younger associates.

Full disclosure: The author is bumping up against Medicare age, but has no plans of retiring anytime soon.