I waded through a slew of this week’s entertainment, past a bunch of Kardashian-related bunk, and noticed an announcement that Ben Affleck is retiring from playing Batman. Of course, Batman, and his long-suffering pals Robin and Alfred, are fictional characters who never grow too old to work. Still, I could not help but imagine the Caped Crusader trading in his skin-tight rubber suit for a cabana shirt and shorts, his Batmobile for a golf cart, and the Batcave for a nice little condo in Boca Raton.
Outside of Gotham City, Baby Boomers—a huge segment of the workforce born between 1946 and 1965—are nearing traditional retirement age. Never ones to fit the mold, however, Baby Boomers are eschewing traditional notions of when to stop working. A report from the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS), Baby Boomer Workers are Revolutionizing Retirement: Are They and Their Employers Ready?, examines Baby Boomers’ retirement vision and finds that Boomers “are forging a new model of retirement that is a radical departure from that of previous generations.” According to Catherine Collinson, president of TCRS, Boomers are “overturning long-standing assumptions about working until age 65, calling for dramatic changes in current employment practices, and proving that retirement and working are not mutually exclusive.”
The TCRS survey showed that:
- Sixty-five percent of Baby Boomer workers plan to work past age 65 or do not plan to retire. Slightly more than half (5%) plan to continue working after they retire.
- Sixty-two percent of the boomers who plan to work in retirement and/or past age 65 indicate that their main reason is income or health benefits.
- Thirty-four percent plan to work for enjoyment, including 18% who want to stay involved and 16% who enjoy what they do.
So how are employers supposed to develop succession plans to ensure continuity in the workforce? One thing’s for sure—employers cannot force employees to retire because of their age (with very few exceptions that do not apply to the large majority of workers.) As a result, employers must not assume that workers nearing or over the age of 65 are on the cusp of retirement. Many employees have successfully brought age discrimination claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) or analogous state civil rights laws because their employers passed them over for employment opportunities in favor of younger workers, repeatedly asked employees when they were going to retire, or made comments about the need to get “new blood” or “fresh faces” into the organization.
Transition planning still needs to occur to keep an organization on track and ensure that its workforce can meet the demands of its business operations. Employers would be wise, however, to navigate this issue delicately. Although employers should not expressly ask employees when they plan to retire, employers do have the right to know if an employee can be count on to remain with the organization for a certain period of time. When having conversations with older employees about their future plans, be careful not to suggest or encourage an employee to retire. If possible, avoid using the term “retirement” all together and simply ask if the employee plans to continue working over the next three to five years (or whatever period is germane to your organization’s transition plan). If the employee indicates that he or she does plan to continue working, don’t question the employee further or make any value judgments or suggestions about why you believe that the employee should leave the workforce earlier. Employers have been found liable or paid hefty settlements to resolve age discrimination lawsuits for making well-meaning but ill-advised statements to older employees, such as “Why don’t you enjoy the fruits of your labor and take time for yourself?” or “Now is the time for you and your spouse to spend more time with your grandchildren” or “Don’t you want to have time to travel and enjoy life while you still can?”
When managing older employees, it is vital to separate assumptions and stereotypes about an employee’s advanced age with the company’s performance expectations. For example, if a 70 year-old employee can satisfactorily perform the essential functions of his position, then you should not assume otherwise. On the other hand, if an older employee is experiencing problems with being unproductive, inefficient, or making mistakes, these issues should be treated as a performance issue, not an age issue. In other words, employers should apply and enforce their performance and conduct policies consistently to all employees, young and old alike, to avoid allegations of unfair treatment.
In the end, everyone, except perhaps Batman, will have to retire and transition out of the workforce. As you plan for your organization’s future, be respectful of older workers, don’t make assumptions based on age, and be careful not to encourage or suggest that an employee retire before he or she is ready.