Mark Hammer

It’s one thing to look at the tombstone data in one’s HR information database, and calculate how many people are within such and such an interval of their pension eligibility age, and quite another to know just how comfortable all those people feel about the worth of their pensions, savings, and other assets. Also quite another to know:
– how much their jobs are the sort of thing they wouldn’t mind doing for a while longer,
– how much they can parlay their skillset into consulting work as a second career, making earlier departure feasible and desirable,
– how much their workplace currently validates their knowledge and skillset.

People in blue collar jobs, and some white collar ones are happy to work to their pensionable age, walk out the door and never look back. For a great many professionals, we see them taking early “retirement” from their primary employment, and using their pension to cushion the volatility and fluctuation of a second career that can often involve consulting. That is, “retirement” means withdrawal from the labour force for some, but not for others.

But, as always, the question of when and whether people retire is a matter of what they believe they are retiring from, and what they think they are retiring to. If how they view retirement as better than how they view their work, they’ll leave. If what they might be retiring to is questionable (e.g., being stuck in the house with one’s spouse, or a drop in one’s standard of living), then they’ll stay longer. Some of the research I’m familiar with suggests that people tend to retire within +/-2years of when they say they will. So, people might retire earlier, or they might retire later, but they won’t be way off what the tombstone data suggests. Still, a 4-year range can have big implications for your organization. Factors that can impact on which side of the anticipated date retirement occurs can include things like finances and fluctuations in investment income/worth, changes in health, changes in spouse/partner’s health or employment situation, and emergence/attrition of other obligations or personal projects.

One of the things I haven’t seen any research on, but would be interested in is what you might call a “changing neighbourhood” effect. You’ve probably had older relatves that lived in the same neighbourhood for ages and felt very attached to it, and at a certain point the neighbourhood had changed enough that it just didn’t feel like their neighbourhood anymore, so they sold the house and bought a condo. I guess this is somewhat analogous to Mitchell and Lee’s model of “job embeddedness”. People stay in jobs and organizations that they feel a part of, and personally invested in. I wonder if people are more inclined to retire earlier than anticipated when enough of their traditional coworkers retire, such that the workplace doesn’t feel like “their neighbourhood” anymore?

Whatever the rate of retirement, the biggest challenge is that of fostering effective knowledge transfer. The central problem is never retention OR recruitment; it’s continuity. You can always find live bodies. If the people who work for you now know everything that the folks who used to work for you knew, there’s no problem. But if the people walking out the door are replaced with kids that have credentials up the wazoo and zero understanding of the history, culture, processes, business lines, and values of the organization, you’re in trouble.

I think the other aspect that tends not to be thought about very deeply, is the implications for a high volume of departures on the capacity of HR do do quality staffing. One of the things we’ve seen in the Canadian federal context is that, among all those retirees, are people in HR, leaving tons of spaces open for younger folks in HR to play career hopscotch and bop around from organization to organization in search of a promotion. The churn in the HR community, prompted by the wave of retirements and the promotion opportunities it affords, is problematic. So, while there are cogent reasons to be concerned about turnover and retirements at senior levels, there are some VERY good reasons to focus one’s gaze on maintaining stability and capacity in the HR shop of your organization. If you’re gonna worry about knowledge transfer anywhere, worry about it there. After all, they are the folks who are going to score you that next wave of quality employees, so they damn well better know what they ought to be looking for and how to get them.