Down to Business: Jobs might go begging if boomers leave

With unemployment still high — 8.1 percent nationally, according to data released last week — it’s h

With unemployment still high — 8.1 percent nationally, according to data released last week — it’s hard to imagine a time when jobs may go begging for workers.

But that time is coming, experts say, as the economy finally bounces back from the Great Recession and, as traditionally occurs, recovery is followed by a period of labor shortages. This time, though, the usual pattern may see a hiccup that goes by the name of Boomer.

The 78 million-strong baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, has always been a force to be reckoned with. The oldest of the cohort turned 65 last year and, between now and 2029, thousands more each day will hit the traditional retirement mark.

“If this generation retires from the labor force at the same rate and age as current older workers, the ‘baby bust’ generation that follows” — also known as Gen X — “will likely be too small to fill many of the projected new jobs,” says a 2010 report from the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston.

The report anticipates some 15.3 million new nonfarm payroll jobs in the U.S. by 2018, when the recovery is in full swing, but only 9.6 million additional workers to fill them. That will leave some 5.7 million jobs vacant, which, according to the report, could impact the country’s long-term economic output and real household income.

But — cue the cavalry horn — boomers could also be part of the solution.

“Encouraging people to work longer will go a long way toward preventing … a significant labor shortage,” the report says. “Fortunately, boomers are not expected to retire at anywhere near the same rate as earlier cohorts of older workers.”

In fact, the report predicts “large increases” through 2018 in the 55-plus crowd’s labor force participation rate, or the percentage of workers with a job or looking for one.

Capturing boomer interest in postponing retirement may be easy: many a 401(k) suffered in the Great Recession. Also, boomers have embraced so-called “encore careers”: shifting to jobs in fields they see as serving a greater good, such as health, education and social welfare — areas the report says could be hit hard by the expected labor shortage.

But others say work needs to be done to get business and government thinking more deliberately about strategies to keep boomers on the job.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a Chicago nonprofit, provided technical assistance to a three-year U.S. Labor Department initiative that sought to outline “best practices” for retaining older workers. At a summit in May co-sponsored by the National Governors Association, the group brought together policymakers, economists, academics and others to discuss the early findings.

One paper presented there, from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, reported that employers who recognize that the workforce is aging — and don’t despair over it — “are more likely to take steps to recruit, engage, and retain these workers.” That can include policies that offer options such as reduced work hours, compressed workweek, job-sharing and phased retirement.

“Clearly, the aging of the U.S. workforce is an important societal issue,” the paper states. “There are far-reaching implications associated with the extent to which older workers who want to work can find employment situations that fit their experiences, interests and priorities.” But the graying of the workforce also is “a significant business issue,” according to the paper, that still needs some attention.

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