Baby Boomer Brain Drain Looms

More companies are hatching plans to compensate for the impending crush of retirements by senior executives. Will they be able to put a dent in a potentially ruinous problem?

Companies may be having a hard time finding qualified young people to fill their junior accounting and finance positions, but that’s nothing compared to the struggles they’ll likely be facing in the next few years at the other end of the age spectrum.

The long-dreaded era of Baby Boomer retirements has finally dawned, and with the oldest Boomers turning 62 this year, the fallout may reach epic proportions in the early years of the next decade. The impact on corporate well-being will be most severe in the senior executive ranks, which are chock-full of people in their 50s and 60s who, unlike most others in their generation, can afford to retire.

That means many companies will be hard-pressed to shore up their finance functions with leaders as experienced as those they have had until now. At Fortune 500 companies, about half of senior managers are expected to retire in the next five years, according to Jay Jamrog, senior vice president of research at The Institute for Corporate Productivity, which researches social, political, legal, economic, and other trends on behalf of its members, mostly large corporations. At the same time, there will be fewer people to replace them with. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over the next 10 years there will be a 15 percent decline in workers age 35 to 54, concurrent with a 25 percent increase in demand.

The looming problem is particularly acute in industries that experience historically low turnover or whose fortunes tend to be cyclical, with their hiring concentrated in boom times, according to Eric Lesser, an associate partner in IBM’s Global Business Services Group, the company’s business consulting unit. Such industries include public utilities, oil and gas, metals and mining, industrial products, and health-care companies, said Lesser, who oversees the group’s research and thought leadership on human capital management issues.

Most disturbing is that there seems to be no great solution to the problem, let alone an ideal one. “Nobody’s got any good plans for replacing people or keeping them longer,” Jamrog told “What kind of lure can you provide for a senior executive who can afford retirement? Keeping them on as mentors is a very good idea, but how do you do that?”

Indeed, in a 2006 study by the Society of Human Resources Management, only about a quarter of the 1,232 respondents said their employers were offering employment options designed to attract and retain semi-retired workers, and 62 percent were not even planning any action on this front. The numbers were similar for “changing retirement policies and plans as a result of projected demographic changes.” And almost 70 percent said they had no plans to try to bring back former executives as mentors.

But while mounting such efforts will not eradicate the serious underlying demographic realities, it could be of some help. More companies are buying into that idea, according to human resources consultants, who are interested parties because they get paid for helping set up succession-planning programs.


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