The Long Goodbye

To the surprise of many, some older executives are finding remote-work life appealing enough to delay retirement. How much will this hamper succession efforts?

No more commuting to work. More time at the house with the family. And never setting foot on a plane for an exhausting business trip.

In one of the stranger twists of the pandemic, a small but surprising number of older executives have discovered they’re arguably better off in today’s remote-work world—enough to put off retiring. To be sure, they’re still energized, working hard, and dealing with the work stress that the pandemic has brought on. “But I’m hearing the upsides are making it worth it to stay on,” says Kevin Cashman, global leader of CEO and executive development at Korn Ferry.

These long goodbyes have caught some human resources officials off guard and present a sharp contrast to the estimated 4 million older workers who, after being laid off, were forced into early retirement. The delays could also potentially put a hold on many firms’ top leadership succession plans, as experts say it’s generally very high level or even C-suite executives who aren’t leaving. Waiting in the wings are ambitious millennials, who now have surpassed baby boomers as the largest workforce group, including female and minority executives hoping to get higher roles as firms focus more on diversity and inclusion. “There is no doubt that blocking the leadership pipeline by individuals delaying retirement is a challenge,” says Joseph McCabe, vice chairman of Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise.

The pandemic has, of course, caused tremendous job stress for the vast majority of people at all levels. A recent Oracle study, for instance, showed that stress levels are even higher for executives, with 85% of top bosses around the world saying they have had significant challenges adjusting to remote work, versus 77% of all employees who say the same thing. Tom Wrobleski, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global account lead in the firm’s Consumer practice, says the stress is even more pronounced for older workers, in part because organizations are using the pandemic to accelerate digital transformation and make over their leadership pipeline.

He says far from coasting, retirement-age executives who made it through are taking on more work, making themselves more available, and generally doing everything they can to remain relevant and visible. “They are doing whatever they can to stay employed,” Wrobleski says.

But even with the added pandemic load, Cashman says, some top executives have discovered remote work creates a balanced life that makes retiring less appealing. And they don’t see the balance changing anytime soon: despite efforts to get staff back to the office, only a quarter of workers are back so far. “They’re asking themselves: if I’m still showing value and getting a good paycheck, why not?” he says.

But the hangers-on may not be able to—or want to—hang on for much longer. As a result of the pandemic, boards and leaders are moving fast to reshape their core team of executives, says Christian Hasenoehrl, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global account leader for the consumer and industrial sectors. Because of the acceleration of digital transformation, he says, companies are offering enhanced voluntary retirement packages and other incentives to their remaining older workers to make way for high-potential talent. Ultimately, there will come a point when the coasters will be better off financially by taking a package than trying to hang on. Or, as Hasenoehrl says, “Retirement is going to come sooner or later.”