What baby boomers want


Organizations are failing to realize the potential of over 50s at work, with HR focusing on retirement planning rather than helping older workers use their skills and expertise for the benefit of the business. 

Added on 15 June 2016 by Sue Honoré

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In November 2015, we completed the first phase of a research project looking into Baby Boomers at work. Previous work has concentrated largely on Generation Y, those under 30, but this project looks at workers over the age of 50. This research phase consisted of an anonymous survey, completed by a total of 2,045 respondents, both Baby Boomers and HR staff in organizations which employ Baby Boomers. It explored what they ‘get’ from work and what they can ‘give’ back. There were five key findings:

1. Baby Boomers are not being used to their full potential

Baby Boomers felt that their breadth of skills were not being used in their current roles and that they could add more to benefit the organization if some of their talents and experience were exploited. There was a strong voice that they were ‘stuck’ in operational roles, where they were performing well, but that the corporate assumption was that they had reached their peak in terms of promotion and were therefore content to continue as is. 

2. Baby Boomers are driven by intrinsic needs

The research indicated Baby Boomers are driven by intrinsic needs – those which make them feel fulfilled and good about themselves. With delayed retirement age and reduced pensions, Baby Boomers are interested in earning money for longer than previous generations, but although that appeared as the strongest driver of extrinsic needs, it was much further down the list. 

Baby Boomers are looking for work that is interesting and challenging and gives them both enjoyment and fulfilment. Mental stimulation was the top priority, followed by fulfilment; sense of purpose and pride – all falling in the intrinsic sector. 

Recent interviews with over-50s have reinforced the power of the interaction with others as a strong motivator to continue working for an extended period. Therefore, continuing in an operational role, which a Baby Boomer may know well and can perform semi-automatically, is not meeting the intrinsic needs of a good percentage of this group.

3. Baby Boomers want something different

If Baby Boomers want something different, what is it? The survey showed that the most popular option was to become a coach or mentor to others. Here is a real opportunity to pass on skills, experience and wisdom to those with less experience, so improving the efficiency of the organization in today’s fast-paced world, at the same time fulfilling those needs of wanting to leave a legacy and making broader use of their experience. 

Baby Boomers also saw themselves in more senior advisory roles; common comments were that they felt they could take on non-executive board roles, or act in some ways as a ‘wise counsel’ on the side to the decision-making teams. This may be the last generation which has strong loyalty to an organization, and having spent time gaining a wide breadth of knowledge about the corporate culture, politics and processes, it makes sense to find ways of maintaining that relationship, even if in a different form.

4. Maintaining the status quo may not be advisable

Not every Baby Boomer is striving for a change in their working lives. Some have found a happy niche and wish to continue as is for the rest of their time in employment. The nature and format of their work may be fulfilling to them on a social and financial level. If this situation is positive for both the individual and the organization, then all is well. Perhaps the only point to consider, voiced by the survey respondents, is having greater time and opportunity to share knowledge with others. However, from the point of view of the individual and of the organization, such a situation does need review. Some Baby Boomers are reluctant to change, and may, inadvertently, be preventing the growth of others or blocking change within the organization. They may also be damaging their own lives in not preparing themselves for a new phase in their lives, with new skills and interests outside work.

5. HR and Baby Boomer employees see their future differently

Perhaps the most important finding from the survey was that Baby Boomers do not feel comfortable voicing their needs for change in their careers at work. This area is being explored in more detail in the second part of this research project, but key findings so far include: 

  • HR is seen as focused on the practical elements of being over 50, such as retirement planning, but, in the eyes of Baby Boomers, does not seem to recognize their wish to continue to grow and develop
  • HR respondents overwhelmingly said that there was ‘no problem’ in attracting/retaining/motivating this group. Yet there may be a hidden issue. The reality of the workplace is that budgets and opportunities for development are focused on the young and that assumptions are made as to the needs of settled and successful employees
  • Formalizing discussions on the needs of senior people is seen as a major challenge, both to HR and individuals. Navigating employment and discrimination law and miscommunication are key worries. Therefore, the needs of Baby Boomers are swept under the carpet

Baby Boomers form a very influential third of today’s workforce. Due to their seniority, their motivation, attitudes and behavior have influence far beyond their personal productivity. It is important to take a fresh look at this group in the workplace. Based on the research to date, a few suggestions are included in the full article in the Spring 2016 360º Ashridge Journal. 

See the full article