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Welcome to Unretirement

Forward-thinking companies are still looking at incentives to keep older talent in place, even in this topsy-turvy downturn world.

Welcome to Unretirement

Remember all those headlines from a few years back that predicted an impending talent and knowledge shortage inside companies? By now, great hordes of retiring baby boomers were expected to be trading in their pinstripes for relaxed fit jeans and taking off to roam the country in pimped-out RVs.

Panicked companies, faced with a potentially devastating talent shortage and institutional knowledge drain, were supposed to bribe the remaining employees into staying by offering all sorts of age-related inducements—flexible working arrangements, alternative career paths and perhaps, who knows, even coupons for early-bird dinner specials and discounts on Viagra prescriptions.

At the time, the "graying of the workforce" was hyped as the demographic equivalent of Y2K. But much like the techno-nonapocalypse, the mass exodus of older workers appears to be just another over-hyped non-event that slammed head first into the reality of a brutal downturn.

According to Sun Life Financial's "Unretirement Index", 65% of U.S. workers now say they'll need to keep working past retirement age to make ends meet. In fact, articles in business publications increasingly have been spinning unretirement as a looming problem for companies anxious to control their health care costs and to clear out aging "lifers" on their staffs.

If you're one of those boomers who was looking forward to being cajoled by your employer into staying on, this seeming reversal of fortune may be bewildering. But don't resign yourself to being forced out the door just yet. The downturn most likely isn't going to last forever, and the demographic shift underway hasn't stopped.

A recent survey by Boston College's Sloan Center on Aging and Work found that 40 percent of companies still fear talent drain through retirement will hurt their performance over the next four years, and 31 percent are giving older employees various flexible work arrangments as an inducement to stay. More employers will either wise up fairly quickly or suffer serious consequences, explains center director Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, the study's coauthor.

"There's no better time to be investing in talent management than right now," says Pitt-Catsouphes. "The companies that are taking the time to project retirement rates and look at flexible work options will ensure that the talent is there when the economy picks up, so that they'll be ready to go. Paying attention today is tomorrow's competitive advantage."

One such employer cited by the Sloan Center is Abbott Laboratories, the Illinois-based pharmaceutical and medical products giant. In 2008, Abbott launched its "Freedom to Work" program for retirement-age workers, which allows them to work a four-day week or take five weeks of vacation each year, without any loss of benefits. Abbott also allows older employees to reduce their responsibilities—to go from managing to being a staff contributor, for example—without reducing their pay or job grade.

Welcome to the new, new unretirement. It may not be as good as you expected, but it's not as bad as the doomsayers are predicting.

[Images by Foundphotoslj / CC BY 2.0]