Baby Boomer Retirements and the IT Connection

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We’ve covered IT workforce issues many times in CertMag, and our discussion has encompassed topics from offshore outsourcing to the pipeline of younger workers coming into the industry. Regarding the latter subject, research has shown diminishing numbers of people who are studying computer science in college and considering IT as a possible career choice. Obviously, this is a problem, and compounding that problem is the fact that many of the baby boomer-era workers (born between 1946 and 1964) who currently comprise the workforce are just a few years away from retirement.


This hardly affects IT alone. This trend will impact other industries as well, said Robert Rosen, president of SHARE, the oldest computer user group in the world, and chief information officer at the National Institute of Arthritis and Muscular, Skeletal and Skin Diseases at the National Institute of Health, which is within the Department of Health and Human Services. “The full extent of the problem has yet to be realized,” he said. “I think it is a problem, but it’s multi-dimensional. I think it is going to be a challenge, especially in IT, because all the statistics we see show that the number of people going into IT is dropping. Yet the need for people in IT is going to go up.”


Nor is this problem limited to the United States. Indeed, the median age of much of the world is either rising or expected to rise within the next 50 years, even within emerging countries in South Asia, the Pacific Rim and Eastern Europe. “There are certain skill categories that already have tremendous shortages, especially in the parts of Europe that used to be the old Iron Curtain countries that are trying to catch up,” Rosen said. “They are spending a lot of money bringing consultants from other part of Europe. A friend of mine in England is currently working in Hungary on a consulting contract. He’s bringing his computer expertise into the country to help bring them up to speed, and he’s definitely of retirement age.”


So who will replace the retiring baby boomers in the IT industry? In all likelihood, it will be…wait for it…the baby boomers! To paraphrase boomer icon Bob Dylan, they ain’t goin’ nowhere. Like Rosen’s English friend—and Rosen himself, for that matter—they’ll either devise new ways to work or just stay until well past their retirement age. “People won’t necessarily retire just because they’re eligible—me being a perfect example,” Rosen explained. “But you have to start in the aggregate, looking in the total numbers and saying, ‘This could become an issue, and not only do we have to find new people to come in but also find ways to make it attractive for some of these older workers to hang around a while longer.’ Let’s enable more part-time work, and let’s do more with telecommuting.”


Options such as telecommuting and flexible hours, long advocated by work-life balance supporters, will appeal to boomers because they’ll be able to keep contributing to their organizations and earning a salary, but not have to deal with typical vocational hassles. “When I talk to some people and ask, ‘Why are you retiring? You like the job,’ one of the answers in this area—Washington, D.C.—is ‘Traffic is just so horrible. The commute is just frazzling me. If I can get out, that’s what I’m going to do.’ But if you just let them telecommute, you could still take advantage of those people. They’re starting to look at all these different options.”


These new work models might eventually mean the end of the traditional 9-to-5 full-time employment arrangement, or at least reduce it significantly. “It could possibly change that,” Rosen said. “It could also open up the workplace to people who, for one reason or another, were forced out of the workplace—mothers who want to stay home with their children, for example, or fathers who do, for that matter. Having different employment options is a good thing.”


However, some employers might not be in that frame of mind just yet, he added. “Some companies are just so set in their ways that they just can’t see how to make that work. The other aspect of that is the trust issue. If you’re going to do telecommuting, you’ve got to trust that your employees are going to be working at home because you’re not going to be standing over them. Some supervisors have a problem with that. And if you ask them, ‘Well, don’t you trust your employees?’ they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I trust my employees.’ ‘But you still have to stand over them?’ They don’t see the contradiction there. It’s the old management philosophy, and those people are going to have to start thinking about changing their ways. It’s more than that, though—the whole employment environment may have to change.”

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