Boomers Retiring Early from State Government Not Necessarily a Good Thing

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June 20, 2014; Stateline

This piece could easily apply to concerns about the nonprofit sector human resources. Jeffrey Stinson writes for Stateline that state governments are concerned that “aging” Baby Boomers—as opposed to those that have found the miracle to stanch the aging process, one supposes—are choosing to leave their jobs in favor of the easy life of retirement—that is, assuming retirement is as easy and comfortable as it’s cracked up to be.

Half of state government workers are between 45 and 64 years of age. “One-third of state workers,” said Leslie Scott, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives, “are eligible to retire in the next five years.” That includes many employees who will choose to retire before the age of 65, either accepting reduced benefits for retiring early or retiring before 65 but getting full benefits because of years of employment. Stinson writes that the “impending exodus is prompting many human resources departments to dust off ‘succession plans’ for filling positions in a better-educated and lower-paid workforce than the private sector.”

Here’s the troubling part of this for state governments—and for nonprofits.

First, the increasing numbers of early retirees often reflects state government employees’ disappointment—disgust, perhaps—at working at jobs that haven’t seen pay increases for years. “If your pay is not increased, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep working,” William Thielen, executive director of the Kentucky Retirement Systems, explained. “You retire, and many people go out and look for other jobs.”

If you think that’s the case with state government salaries, look at the salaries of nonprofit staff people below the CEO level (or not on the major gifts fundraising side). While some of the big thinkers, so to speak, in the nonprofit sector have been advocating that nonprofit CEOs should be paid like their for-profit counterparts, it’s all too clear that for many nonprofits, staff salaries for line staff have been stagnating. That’s no way to treat baby boomers in the nonprofit sector, who have been toiling for their employers driven by mission and passion—and who don’t deserve to be discarded for younger, lower-paid subs.

Second, the issue is one of valuing the contributions of the baby boomers. Sometimes, with articles like this one from Stateline, the focus moves pretty quickly on how to attract and retain millennials, born between 1972 and 2004 or thereabouts. When Stinson writes that millennials are better educated—and cheaper—than their baby boomer parents, some boomers read that as the all but obvious kick-in-the-rear to get out and make way for replacements.

Mimi Collins, communications director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, told Stateline that millennials “aren’t automatically put off by the prospect of working for government.” That’s phrasing that doesn’t comport with their boomer parents, who, rather than being turned off, were strongly drawn to and motivated by the prospect of government jobs, which, by the way, have been major contributors to the growth of the middle class in the African-American community.

Department of Labor statistics show a significantly higher proportion of employed African Americans with jobs in the public sector—19.3 percent—compared to whites (14.2 percent) and Latinos (10.4 percent). The University of California Labor Center estimates that the proportion of blacks in employed in the public sector between 2008 and 2010 was about 21.2 percent, making public sector employment “the single most important source of employment for African-Americans.”

In some ways, the push to recruit millennials in state government has ramifications not only for nudging boomers out of the way, but for displacing African Americans in an employment sector that has been crucial to their middle class advancement, particularly since the Civil Rights era lessened some discriminatory recruitment and placement practices on the parts of government HR managers. It isn’t hard to imagine that boomers, particularly those within the African American community, might perceive some of these dynamics as reversals in their social progress in the nonprofit sector’s employment as well.

While it is clearly important to find paths for millennials into jobs in the public and nonprofit sectors, the experience and knowledge of boomers in these sectors should make them worth valuing and retaining. Bring in new millennial talent, but don’t toss away the tried and true.—Rick Cohen

  • Jean S. Logan

    The biggest reason my friends are opting for early retirement is the ever shifting priorities brought on by waves of new CEOs appointed either by each new governor, or because of a crisis generated by bad press. The folks who know well what’s wrong and how to adjust it are ignored; legislatures will fund “new” programs but not adjust existing programs that could be improved. Keeping your head down and mouth shut to avoid political potshots gets very tiring. This failure to listen to and utilize their expertise ranks above pay increases in dissatisfaction with work. Many of us are going back to work in the same industries via the nonprofit or for profit sector because we can be creative.