Now It’s the ‘Great Retirement’

Demographics alone don’t account for the more than 3 million people who have retired during the pandemic. Can leaders convince boomers to stay on the job?

For nearly two years, leaders have suspected that many of the people who quit their jobs during the so-called Great Resignation were leaving the working world for good. Now they may know how many: 3.3 million.

That’s the number of workers the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimates have left the workforce from January 2020 through October 31. The rate of retirements exceeds that predicted by the demographic shift of baby boomers into retirement, according to the bank’s researchers.

The surge is sending leaders — already facing severe labor shortages among a host of younger groups —scrambling to coax back some of those recent retirees and to convince veteran employees contemplating retirement to stick around a little longer. “There are environments with people well into their 70s whose bosses are saying, ’You can’t retire; we need you,’” says David Vied, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s Medical Devices & Diagnostics practice.

The breakdown of the bank’s research shows that not every group is retiring at the same rate. The majority of people retiring were 65 or older. Retirements among those 55 to 64 have been largely flat during the pandemic. Older white women without a college education were more likely to retire than any other group. Black, Hispanic, and Native American workers were less likely to retire than their white peers.

Experts say that leaders who want to lure back recently retired employees will have to determine the root reason they left in the first place. During the early lockdowns, there were indications that boomers put off retiring because they were attracted to remote work that enabled them to spend more time with their families instead of commuting or going on business trips. But many companies are gearing up to get workers back into the office, either full- or part-time. Other near-retirees stayed on for fear that the stock market — and their 401 (k) savings — would drop in a pandemic. Instead, recent wild market swings notwithstanding, stock prices have risen, along with another key asset for people who are retiring — home prices.

Mark Royal, senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory notes that experts say higher compensation might not be enough to pull these workers back. Instead, he says, leaders will have to appeal to a retired worker’s sense of purpose. Leaders also should not expect recently retired people to go back to their old roles full-time. Consider bringing them back on a project basis, Royal says, or for only a couple of days a week. “We’ve seen people go to either on-call or part-time roles; that seems a good balance of work and life,“ says Andy De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice president of Human Resources in the Americas.

Another idea is to initiate “returnships” — paid, three-to-six-month positions that offer on-the-job training. While these programs are usually geared toward mid-career employees, retirees might appreciate the chance to pick up new skills and do meaningful work. Or leaders can ask their retiring workers to stick around and teach their younger colleagues. “Instead of losing the talent, companies can keep a connection with their older employees and use their expertise,” says Paul Lambert, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global leader of the firm’s Workforce Transformation practice.