Retaining Company Knowledge from The Babyboomer Workforce

By Barbara Jaworski
Workplace Institute
A decade ago, economists warned of a looming talent war. The baby boom generation, they said, would soon start retiring in their millions and there would simply not be enough skilled and experienced younger workers available to fill the void. Organizations would find themselves in a pitched battle for talent in an increasingly competitive global marketplace where talent means innovation and innovation means growth. 
Fast forward 10 years and companies in virtually every sector are starting to experience what economists have been forecasting and are finally realizing that they’re in dire danger of not only losing huge numbers of seasoned staff but talented younger workers too. And a new phrase has emerged: “knowledge management “ – which basically means organizations are now scrambling to attract, retain and develop highly skilled workers.
Despite having a decade to prepare, most organizations did nothing – especially after the stock market crashed in 2008 and many Boomers saw their retirement investments tank and their dreams of early retirement fade. Those younger employees who survived corporate downsizings found themselves working harder and longer but grateful to have a job. A tight labour market meant no talent war, but what organizations failed to comprehend was that markets recover and booms often follow busts. And the recession did indeed end and workers of all ages are now planning for the future.

Boomers are once again looking towards retirement and Gen Xers and Ys are looking towards advancing their careers.

Suddenly, organizations faced a crisis. What crisis you may ask?

Look at your company’s senior leadership team. How old are they? They’re all likely in their 50s and early 60s, so many organizations are posed to experience the loss of their entire leadership teams in the next few years! To say nothing of dozens of long-term, extremely experienced staff.

At the same time, skilled younger workers are getting itchy feet. Downsizings may have forced them to stay put for a couple of years, but now opportunities are again opening up and, if they see no future where they are, they’ll fly.
According to the Towers Watson 2010 Global Workforce Study, “the recession has driven a final wedge into the social contract, or ‘deal’, that has traditionally underpinned the employment relationship. That traditional unspoken deal of perform well, stay with the organization and you’ll be rewarded and promoted has evolved into something more conditional and dependent on the demands of an ever-changing business environment.”
In other words, there’s a growing gap between what employees want and expect, and what employers can afford to deliver. “If this ‘relationship gap’ continues to widen,” says the report, “it could compromise employers’ ability to retain top talent, sustain workforce productivity, and shift their focus from recovery to growth.”
What Organizations Need To Do
An error many companies make is in thinking that large salaries or attractive benefits are the only incentives for recruiting and retaining top talent. While they are no doubt important, they’re not the only considerations for prospective employees.

The Towers Watson report found that workers of all ages now want security and stability.

In the past, Boomers advanced their careers by jumping from company to company, but younger workers want ‘career monogamy’ – to stay with one company and to advance within that company. However, recent corporate thinking has been “why invest in developing younger workers when they’re just going to move on in a year or two?” or “why train older workers when they’re only going to retire in five years?”

Organizations need to get on board with this shift in employee thinking and invest more in developing – and thus retaining — employees of all ages. Learning and development programs, mentoring opportunities and challenging career opportunities will go a long way to attracting and retaining the best and brightest to a company.

Training and development programs should also focus on managers. There’s a saying that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses. And over the past several years, companies have tended to promote high-performing candidates to manager positions and then not provided the resources to make those candidates good people managers. This is usually a recipe for disaster and not fair to anyone. So again, extensive development and training programs for new managers is advisable – and will pay off again as they rise to even more senior positions where people skills become even more essential.
HR also needs to examine where in the organization key knowledge resides – and it’s not just at senior levels.
  • That 30-something customer service rep who has, for the past five years, provided first-class support to clients and has an in-depth knowledge of their needs and what can and can’t be done for them.
  • That 45 year old in marketing who’s been with the company for 10 years and possesses vital departmental or industry knowledge.
  • That 55-year-old administrative assistant who’s got 30 years of service and knows the company inside out and backwards.
How easy is it to replace these people? Organizations are often so focussed on retaining or attracting senior people or those with highly specialized knowledge that they often overlook those employees who are the lynchpins of their departments – until they leave and take that knowledge with them. Ask them what needs to be done to retain them.
Just as important as comprehensive learning and development opportunities are comprehensive rewards and recognition programs.  And not just plaques for long-term service – Boomers may love rewards, but that’s not going to cut it with younger employees. Gen Ys want recognition for their contributions. They want their managers and executives to say, “well done,” and they want to be rewarded with more challenging work and the opportunity to learn new skills that will help further their careers. They want to know they have a future with the company.
And finally, perhaps the most important element in relationship managementa great corporate culture of respect, equality, transparency and social responsibility. Younger workers want to affiliate themselves with a company that has an outstanding reputation in the marketplace, the community and online, but as we’ll see in part two, this is often easier said than done.
Barbara Jaworski is the author of KAA-Boom How to Engage the 50 Plus Worker and Beat the Workforce Crisis and CEO of the Workplace Institute an organization focused on research, training and talent management. She can be reached at