Boomers Rock the System

By Caudron, Shari | Workforce, December 1997 | Go to article overview
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Boomers Rock the System

Caudron, Shari, Workforce

With baby boomers at the helm, retirement will never be the same. See how and why it will change. And discover what that means for HR today.

At age 71, Michelangelo was appointed chief architect of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome-work he supervised until his death at age 89. Adolph Zukor was chairman of Paramount Pictures until he was 91. And George Abbot, the great Broadway actor, writer, director and producer, brought "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" to Broadway at age 75. He then topped that with the revival of his first hit, "Broadway," when he was 100 years old.

These later-life achievements used to be the exception to the rule. For the last 60 years or so, the majority of working Americans have chosen to retire at age 65, buy a condo in the sun and invest an absurd amount of money in golf club memberships and vacation cruises. Productivity? Forget it. Retirement was a time for leisure-period. Only a small minority of people remained gainfully employed in life's later years.

But it's all changing now as baby boomers-that teeming mass of humanity that popularized rock 'n' roll, the sexual revolution and recreational drug use-hurtle toward retirement age. Thanks to the sheer number of them, baby boomers have profoundly affected American life at every step along the age continuum.

When boomers hit school age in the 1950s, classrooms couldn't be built fast enough and many schools went into double sessions. When they went off to college, the number of college students nearly tripled to 9 million and 743 new colleges were opened. As corporate employees, they made casual dress the rule and demanded more flexible work arrangements and family-friendly benefits. Now, with the first boomers set to hit earlyretirement age within the next four years, they will no doubt redefine the nature of that time-honored institution as well.

"Boomers make up 52 percent of the working population and are of an age at which they've reached managerial and executive positions," explains Rebecca Chekouras, vice president of research services for marketing solutions and information provider Age Wave Communication Corp. in Emeryville, California, and a baby boomer herself. "As the adult governing population, we're in charge. What we do sets the tone for corporate life,"and for corporate retirement.

With one boomer turning 50 every eight seconds, a rate that will continue for the next 10 years, retirement issues are being pushed to the forefront of the national consciousness. But how will retirement be redefined? And why should it? Aren't a nice pension check and loud Bermuda shorts the goal of all burnt-out corporate employees?

Well, yes and no. Sure, we all want more leisure time, but not everyone can afford a fat and happy retirement. Furthermore, not everyone will want to stop working at age 65, especially boomers who derive a significant part of their selfesteem from their jobs. But regardless of what boomers decide to do about retirement, these aging workers will have a tremendous impact on corporate human resources. In fact, they already are. From recruitment and retention to compensation and benefits, every facet of HR management is being challenged as the average age of workers continues to rise, and the first boomers stand on the precipice of their retirement years.

Why the structure of retirement is chang. In the "old days"-which still exist to some extent-Americans spent the first part of their lives, from birth to their early 20s, educating themselves in preparation for work. This period of education was followed by employment, often with just one or two companies, that lasted until workers were eligible for full pension benefits at 62 or 65. Upon retirement, Americans settled into a time of leisure and inactivity.

"This model of the life cycle is rapidly becoming obsolete," explains Richard Judy, a senior research fellow with the Hudson Institute Inc.

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