Retirement, once the end goal for workers, has a different meaning today. People want to keep working — both because they can and because they need financial security through increasingly longer lifespans. At the same time, once they retire, older workers often take their industry — or "tribal" — knowledge with them.
"Retirement is defined in our society and our culture as an on-off switch. You’re retired; you’re not retired," says Cash Nickerson, president of aerospace and defense engineering staffing firm PDS Tech. "[But] imagine a world where you climb up the corporate ladder and decelerate down it, and that downward slope is not one year or one day."
Nickerson and his team are addressing institutional knowledge loss head-on by creating programs to help younger workers get industry-specific crash courses from "semi-retirees" — experienced people who aren’t ready to give up work, but don’t want to work full time, either. The idea: Play matchmaker between the two groups and everybody benefits. Or, as Nickerson puts it, "during that deceleration, semi-retirees can help somebody accelerate up."
Today's Talent Barbell
In a perfect world, the population distribution would support the traditional notion of retirement. When senior-level executives retired, the next-level employees would be promoted up through the chain of command. Today however, the workforce population looks like a barbell: There are about 78 million Baby Boomers, 48 million Gen Xers and 70-80 million Millennials. That next-level employee, increasingly, simply does not exist.
The knowledge gap between the most senior workers and the most junior won’t fix itself, Nickerson says. "The demographics are out of whack. So you need structures to bridge the loss of institutional knowledge," he says.
A "Boomer in Residency" Program
One such structure is the center of excellence model that Nickerson and his colleagues at PDS Tech have built in partnership with various aerospace and defense engineering companies. His firm hires semi-retirees with the right industry experience, and companies send recent graduate hires to the center to learn from veterans.
"Sure, there’s technical engineering and technical IT instruction, but then there are specific ways that company A does it. People who work at company A can pass that blueprint on," Nickerson says. "It’s sort of like an outsourced intergenerational learning experience. I like to compare it to a doctor in residency program," Nickerson says.
Why the Multigenerational Approach Matters
Accommodating seasoned workers with innovative approaches to retirement (or semi-retirement) benefits three critical groups, according to Nickerson. First, workers benefit from financial security and health reasons. Research into "productive aging" shows a correlation between terminating work and health issues. Second, companies that value and support older workers benefit from preserving institutional knowledge. Finally, accommodating semi-retirees benefits the government, which needs people to work longer to support Social Security, Nickerson says.
He’s optimistic about fostering meaningful connections between seasoned workers and new hires, an approach that HR departments in any number of industries can learn from. "That multigenerational, intergenerational knowledge center to me is the greatest opportunity," he says.