Demographic issues are in the air. IBM recently announced plans to train 10,000 new mainframe workers by 2010, the year boomers born in 1945 turn 65. Encouraging people to work beyond retirement age will be necessary to prop up declining labour force levels, according to a 2005 Conference Board of Canada study. IBM also launched a new consulting area to help organizations deal with the impending loss of experienced older workers. Is the situation as dire as it appears? To get some perspective on the matter, ComputerWorld Canada Senior Writer Rosie Lombardi spoke with the man who wrote the book — literally — on demographics: David Foot, author of Boom, Bust and Echo.

What kind of demographic shifts are we going to see in the near future?

In Canada, the first baby boomers were born in 1947, and they’ll reach age 65 in 2012. Some boomers in certain occupations can retire before 65. So we have a few front-end boomers, primarily in the public sector, beginning to retire now and trickling out from public service, teaching, civil service, military and some unionized jobs.

So how big a problem will retiring boomers be for Canada?

Not a problem at all. The peak of the baby boom was 1960 [in Canada]. Those people are only 45 today, so by 2010, they’re 50. There’s still another 15 years before they retire. This idea that boomers will retire en masse, I don’t know where it cropped up. The baby boom was 20 years long, and it’s going to take 20 years for them all to retire. There’s also another issue here: we’re going to have a labour market surplus, not simply because boomers aren’t retiring, but their kids, the echo boomers, are coming into the workforce. We’ve got exploding college and university enrollment now, and they’re graduating. At the front end, the echo boomers born in the 1980s are now 25.

Is IBM misguided in offering training and services to deal with retiring workers?

I really don’t mind them thinking that way, because it means we’re going to see an investment in apprenticeship programs, which we badly need. There’s no doubt in certain occupations, we will have a labour market shortage. In a lot of skilled trades, we abandoned our apprenticeship programs in the early 1980s. But this has nothing to do with retiring boomers. Yes, there will be some attrition of experienced people out of select occupations, but it’s not a massive exodus. [The problem] is that we haven’t been planning the inflow, and not that the outflow is [leaving]. The retiring workers are a catalyst to deal with a long-standing problem.

Are there generational differences due to the technology environment people grew up in?

No. It’s purely the points of their lives [that defines them]. Back when I was in my twenties, I was a brilliant Fortran programmer. I haven’t lost those technology skills, but they’re irrelevant today. And that happens to everybody. You’re at the frontier of technology in your twenties, and round about age 30, you get more responsibilities at work and start a family. There’s nothing like a kid and a mortgage to get you focused. When the boomers were in their twenties, they were perceived as disloyal, and there’s nothing different in today’s generation. They want to [travel], get experience, move up fast — they’re acting just like the boomers did. Those in their thirties now, they’re the people in the 1990s who were part of the big technology boom, they were never going to settle down. Today they want to work for big organizations like IBM. They need stability now that they have kids and mortgages. People act their age — there’s little difference in attitudes or aspirations.

Do you have any advice on the best way to manage the outflow of older workers?

For boomers, you might want to have some type of phased retirement policy. There are a lot of people after age 50-55 who would love to spend every weekend with their grandkids. Why not have them work four days a week for 80 per cent of salary? They want to play golf. Why not have them work nine months of the year at 75 per cent salary? So we need some sort of phased retirement where we proportionately reduce work load and salary. That’s the way to keep the experience around, but begin to save on their salaries. We also need some way to deal with the pension issues, and we’re not confronting that at all. If you can take the 55-year-olds and send them on special assignments for three days a week, you’ve created an opportunity for [younger workers]. Bringing them into management positions now is a great idea. [They can] work with people who are leaving the position, but who are still around to mentor them.

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