Opinion

Changes loom as boomers near the exits

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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Photo by Mark Rhodes

The phrase “the pig in the python” is sometimes used to describe the baby-boom generation.  Being a boomer myself, I’ve never been particularly enamored with that not-so-quaint description, but it is accurate.  For decades, boomers essentially have dominated the world economy, the arts, fashion, pop culture, music, politics, you name it.

Then there’s “jumped the shark,” a phrase implying that something has passed its point of peak popularity, quickly becoming passé.

Taken together, one could say that “the pig in the python has jumped the shark.”  What a menagerie.

As aging boomers begin to retire, we are seeing  effects that are more bang than whimper.  Think about health care. There’s a reason it’s dominating our economy — older folks need more care. 

Then there’s the workforce. People are reaching retirement age faster than they can be replaced. Think about Social Security.  Are we nearing a time when there will be more retirees than workers? Demographic studies show that, in the U.S. alone, 10,000 baby boomers have been turning 65 every day since 2011, a trend that will continue through 2030.

The problem facing employers isn’t just replacing boomer workers.  It’s replacing their skills and knowledge.  Maybe it’s time for companies to include a “boomer-replacement” section in their disaster recovery plans.  This is no joke.  Many organizations are working hard to figure out how to replace their boomers.  If you aren’t doing this yet, maybe you should.

It’s true that some boomers are working longer and retiring later.  One reason for this is that being part of such a large group — the pig in the python —  boomers still see a lot of their contemporaries in the workplace. They don’t feel out of place. 

A second reason for later retirements may be the widespread elimination of pension plans as well as the recession-wrecked values of 401(k) plans.  Financially, many boomers feel the need to work longer.  This situation gives companies a little longer runway to replace boomers, but it does not eliminate the problem.

Technology may provide some help.  With self-driving cars soon replacing Uber drivers (see Page 26) and a host of other job-replacing technologies on the horizon, fewer workers may be needed in the future.

From a theoretical standpoint, it’s a bit unsettling to think about the long-term effects of this devaluation of labor and how a jobless or “job-lite” economy might work. But there is no question that technology is replacing labor.

What about the upside?  Thinking back to the days of my youth, it’s easy to recall that when I went to an event, say a concert at Dogwood Dell in Richmond’s Byrd Park, everyone there was my age.  Today, if I go to a concert at the same venue, it’s likely that most people are still about my age.  The point is that boomers have been surrounded by people like themselves their whole lives.

A boomer side-effect has been less experience with diversity.  Not just diversity of age, but diversity of opinion, gender, race, culture, ethnicity and politics.

Being so numerous, boomers are more inclined to think that majority rule is all that matters.  This is a big part of what characterizes the contemporary political landscape.  We are seeing less appreciation of minority rights and dissenting opinions, less emphasis on consensus-building skills and overreliance on majority power as the solution to every problem.  Perhaps this should come as no surprise.  Most politicians are aging boomers who are nearing retirement and, in some cases, irrelevance.  Recent election results have pointed toward the latter.

In the workplace, diversity, inclusion and collaborative thinking increasingly have proved to be important ways to find new solutions.  Interestingly, the post-boomer generations are turning out to be better and more comfortable with collaborative thinking.  This is a good thing.  Even for boomers, the future may be brighter than we think.




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