Promoting mass adoption of longtime flex orphan: Phased Retirement

In 1987, flexibility advocates at New Ways to Work launched the first major national campaign for the “menu” of six flexible work options: flextime, part-time, job sharing, compressed schedules, telecommuting—and phased and partial retirement. The first five thrive today, with millions of users.

Not so with phased and partial retirement. While the option of reduced or stepped-down schedules as part of normal retirement has been widely and effectively used globally for decades, in that same period American employers have been indifferent or hostile to this option. A 2016 SHRM survey showed 64% of workers “hoping to ease into retirement” and only 5% of employers offering what they considered a “formal phased retirement program.”

Scratch the surface of these claims and one seldom finds programs that enable systematic phasing out from regular positions, with benefits. More often one finds one-off deals providing modest flexible schedules, short-term part-time arrangements or the ubiquitous practice of retiring/rehiring older workers as contractors with no benefits and great uncertainty.

Just as the Boomers drove flexible work, they are now poised to normalize phasing

There could not be a better moment to normalize phased and partial retirement as a better way of working. With the worst of the Recession behind us, we are confronted with powerful facts:

  • Labor markets are tightening and there is a tsunami of retirees who must be replaced
  • When today’s workers leave they take irreplaceable knowledge and experience
  • The pensions and savings of typical older workers are inadequate for longer lives
  • Deep and systemic age discrimination runs head-on into extended retirement policies
  • The common assumption of easy access to second or “gig careers” is a risky bet

That is why our team of seasoned diversity, flexibility, and inclusion advocates has formed Respectful Exits to promote extended, flexible, and phased retirement—to reimagine and reinvent the outdated model. Our mission: transform the perception and status of older workers from second class contributors, often victims of downsizing and early retirement, to contributors developed and retained on the basis of their performance, regardless of age. Dismissive attitudes toward older workers support and promote premature retirement. Respectful Exits thus intends to tackle the larger challenge of disrupting age discrimination.

Time to discard the outmoded notion of 65 as “sell-by” date and proof of decline

In 1935, Social Security set eligibility at 65, based on private pension plan practice and shorter life expectancy then. Improved longevity now enables many people to thrive to 80 and beyond. But the notion of imminent decrepitude in the 50s and early 60s remains a powerful assumption. This assumption is given credence when employers withhold training and advancement for many in their late 40s and early 50s and then decry the mismatch of decreased productivity and higher salaries.

We challenge 65 as the widely assumed “sell-by” date: milk curdles, people don’t. Of course older workers vary in their ability to learn and contribute or their desire to work longer or retire early. We seek equal opportunity and “age agnosticism”, not uniform outcomes.

We challenge 65 as the widely assumed “sell-by” date: milk curdles, people don’t.Click To Tweet

The Respectful Exits campaign challenges both age bias and outmoded retirement practices. A July 2017 GAO study, Phased Retirement Programs, Although Uncommon, Provide Flexibility for Workers and Employers, documented the gap between supply and demand for phased retirement, and cited examples of successful company programs and identified skeptical employer attitudes. In particular, a MetLife survey found: “Of large employers, 71 percent agreed that ‘regulatory complexities and ambiguities involving federal tax and age discrimination laws impact their organization’s ability to offer a phased retirement program.’”

Let’s end older worker myths and assumptions and build a genuine flexible lifecycle

These fears are fanciful and unfounded. A growing body of research, advocacy, and employer activity is highlighting the value and possibility of phased retirement. The GAO report was prepared for the US Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is considering public hearings on the results. The highly regarded 17th Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey also cited the gap between demand for and supply of respectful exits. Two of its four recommendations to employers were: “1) Enable Workers to Work Past Age 65 and 2) Adopt a Flexible Retirement Program.”

The nine successful employer programs cited in the GAO report demonstrated that all had effectively overcome the alleged employer challenges reported in the survey. My consulting firm, Rupert & Company, finds these objections similar to those raised decades ago about the “impossibility” of telework or job sharing.  Overcoming them is a matter of will—and where there is a will, there is a way.

Respectful Exits calls on supporters of workplace flexibility and equal opportunity to join a robust campaign for change, to engage our national will in this vital effort. We are well past time to replace decades of damaging mythology and habit with a path to a more secure future for all of us as we age and continue to contribute. Each of us and our organizations can and should join this effort.

All of us, and especially the advocates of 1 Million for Work Flexibility, can play a pivotal role in championing this change. To achieve the goal of truly fair and flexible retirement, to finally flesh out the original menu of flexible options across the employee lifecycle, we encourage you to:

  • Sign up for our blog at RespectfulExits.org and visit the CAMPAIGN page;
  • Share our story and materials within your organizations and on social media;
  • Join our upcoming activities and volunteer at respectfulexits@gmail.com.