The Return of… People Who Just Left

Just like NFL football great Tom Brady, thousands of executives across industries are “unretiring.”  Will it help reduce the labor shortages?

If it was good enough for Tom Brady, it’s apparently good enough for thousands of others. The NFL star may have startled the world by “unretiring” weeks after leaving the sport, but experts say they’re seeing a lot of other retirees make a similar U-turn.

Indeed, with record inflation and market volatility threatening their 401(k) incomes, a good number of retirees are asking to come back—either part time or full time. Once, such reversals would have been awkward, but that was before a global labor shortage left firms in a difficult state. “It’s a big uptick. I’m doing a lot more introductions for my clients at all times,” says Radhika Papandreou, sector leader for  the Travel, Hospitality & Leisure practice at Korn Ferry. 

Even though many firms are grappling with unfilled positions, the decision to bring back retirees is far from a no-brainer. Their price tags are often high, and their presence can block the career paths of millennials. And as any HR will ask rhetorically, didn’t these people choose to leave? But experts say the return of gray-haired workers is part of the new normal, as companies decide that these challenges are outweighed by the availability of skilled, experienced workers who can offer deep knowledge and mentoring. 

Traditionally, of course, most high-level executives who retire wind up on a handful of boards or vacationing a lot. “Now there’s this middle ground,” says Papandreou. “It’s a nice creative way to get experience at the table.” She says typical requests are for highly skilled roles like handling an acquisition, development project, or strategy for a new business line. 

Pablo Golfari, market leader in the Industrial professional search practice at Korn Ferry, is seeing the same trend in agriculture. A large agro-industrial company, he says, recently hired an end-of-career person for a company-transformation role that “really required that maturity, gravitas, and credibility.” Another large company, he says, is considering unretiring a candidate to lead a P&L business role for two-to-three-3 years and to develop a successor. “I’m seeing openness in the industry for the level of experience that comes with end-of-career,” he says. Golfari adds that the US. agriculture business tends to appreciate an applicant’s maturity and tenure, partly because the field has difficulty attracting A-list candidates in often-remote regions.

Similar efforts are underway, at all levels, wherever companies have gaps in hard-to-replace skill sets, says Mark Royal, senior director for Korn Ferry. The key to making these opportunities appealing, he says, is to marry flexibility and purpose. The question to ask, he says, isn’t “Do you want to unretire?” It’s “Would you like to reconnect with old colleagues and help the organization, while doing this thing you’ll find meaningful?” 

Royal also suggests not getting caught up in any lingering feelings stemming from the ex-employees’ exit. “Employment is becoming more fluid, and more organizations are accepting that people’s career journeys may take them out of the organization and then potentially bring them back.” He suggests that managers maintain positive connections with alumni and look for possible opportunities to recruit people who have left.