Perennials, not millennials, will trigger the next wave of talent retention efforts

Thousands of older customers of the US pharmacy chain CVS spend the colder months of the year in warmer climes, migrating from homes in, say, Minnesota to winter pads in sunny Arizona or Florida. In the mid-2000s, CVS realized that many of its older pharmacy employees wanted to do the same thing. 

Rather than force older and more experienced workers to choose between retiring early to pursue the snowbird lifestyle or working through the winters in a place physically difficult to navigate, CVS started a program that allows them to transfer temporarily to stores in warmer states during the winter. It’s a win all around: stores that see a spike in snowbird customers in the winter get more staff during their busy season, customers get the service they need, and employees get jobs that accommodate their lifestyles.

Headlines in recent years have trumpeted workplace changes demanded by millennials, from nap pods to flexible scheduling to student-loan repayment. But there is another fundamental shift in workforce demographics that initiatives like CVS’ snowbird scheduling are just beginning to address.

Older workers—or “perennials,” as this cohort has sometimes been called—are now the fastest-growing population of workers, with twice as many seniors as teenagers currently employed in the US. 

In the 30-year span from 1994 to 2024, workers aged 55 and older will go from being the smallest segment of the US working population to the largest, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other industrialized nations are seeing similar trends; in Japan and South Korea, the workforce is aging even faster.

When BMW realized how many workers with job protection at one German plant were aging, the automaker retooled its production facility to accommodate older workers, installing ergonomic seating and softer floors, enlarging the type on the computers, and supplying more supportive work boots. Productivity rose, and absenteeism plummeted. US companies reluctant to lose the institutional knowledge of older workers have done the same, with manufacturers installing ergonomic seats in trucks and redesigning assembly lines to avoid repetitive motion injuries.

A changing age

The aging of the workforce is in part driven by employees who want to keep working—or at least, to keep earning—well into their 70s and even 80s.