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Required Reading
Living To Work, Or Working To Live?
Tara Weiss, 08.10.07, 4:20 PM ET




Retiring to a golf community and living the easy life has long been one version of the American Dream.

But how many years can one person play golf for?

That's something many of the 76 million baby boomers are contending with as they reach retirement age. Some people will never tire of it. But for a growing number of folks, the idea of playing bridge, tennis and golf for 20 years is, in a word, boring. Meanwhile, companies are frantically figuring out how to deal with the loss of institutional knowledge that comes with the huge number of employees who are reaching the typical age of retirement. In many companies 50% of managers and other key employees will be eligible to retire by 2010, and 70% by 2015.

In his new book, 70: The New 50 (DDI Press, $30), William C. Byham reports that some companies and workers are figuring out how to make both parties happy. The projected life expectancy of a baby boomer who is 60 is 83. But, as Byham reports, not only are people living longer, age doesn't mean the same thing it used to.

That's why companies are enticing older employees to stay several more years past their retirement. But instead of keeping them in the same job, they're making them hybrids, having them work and serve as mentors to younger generations. The idea is to impart the wisdom they've gained throughout their careers while keeping them engaged and challenged.

Byham recently chatted with Forbes.com about how companies can best prevent the potential brain drain and keep older workers happy.

Forbes: Why do you say 70 is the new 50?

Byham: Physically, 70-year-olds are doing things that 50 usually do. Physically, mentally and attitudinally they're different from their grandparents at the same age. And their attitudes toward work are different too. They enjoy work. One guy I interviewed for the book told me he hated to go to a cocktail party and say he was retired. It didn't fit his self-image.

Many baby boomers enjoy the camaraderie that comes with work. There is also a large number of people who can't afford to retire. The third group of people are the ones who can afford to retire, but there's anxiety around retirement that wasn't there before. They feel nervous about getting one lump sum from their 401(k). They don't know how to invest it or how long they'll live. Should they plan for 20 years or stretch it for 40?

For people who are working past the typical retirement age, how is their actual role at work changing?

A large percentage of these people are leaving the managerial roles they've held and are becoming more of a mentor. Very often companies are changing their job responsibilities. I was amazed at how often that happened and how often people give up leadership responsibilities. I interviewed one manager who was formerly a scientist. What he really wanted to do was go back and be a scientist. He's tired of the stress that comes with managing, so that's what he did.

What's the brain drain?

When the baby boomers retire, a whole lot of knowledge is going out the door with them. A lot of it is tacit knowledge that they picked up. I call it wisdom. Wisdom is having a lot of experiences, it's not knowledge. It's having enough experiences so when you see an opportunity you know, if it's good or bad based on past experience because you've been down these roads before. You've got contacts and knowledge of how things work.

How do companies deal with the loss of so many knowledgeable employees?

They need to be proactive in deciding who retires. If someone wants to retire, they shouldn't keep them from that. But managers should look at the people who don't want to retire and choose who they want to make a special deal with for the next stage of their career. For those people they identify, that can give them flexible hours or change their work assignments to make staying worthwhile. That way they can impart their wisdom to the next generation.

How do companies facilitate that handing down of knowledge?

Let someone understudy and work with them over a period of years. A number of companies have tried a faster way, but that doesn't usually work. For example, when Delta Air Lines downsized several years ago, they set up programs where people about to retire taught younger people their jobs. Also, human resources sent people to interview the older generation to collect their knowledge.

The problem is, it's tacit knowledge; they don't know they have it. When you ask them to do that, you don't get the right answers. The best way to get around the problem of the retirement of baby boomers is to keep the people with the wisdom and experience around for five to 10 years while preparing people to take their place.

That means the younger folks are going to have to stay around to make the process worthwhile?

The vast majority of people don't change jobs every two years. But yes, if you plan it this way, you will have some loss that you can't help. On the other hand, these younger people have a clear shot at a higher job. Most kinds of people are in for managerial jobs.

You have to have a well-managed company; that's a basic assumption. We did a survey of people asking if they'd rather stay with a company and be promoted from within or go from company to company and get to higher levels. The vast majority said they would rather stay and get promoted from within.




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