Managing the Silver Tsunami

The “silver tsunami” is the ongoing retirement of Baby Boomers. In the U.S., about 10,000 boomers retire every day, about 4 million per year, and this will continue for the next fifteen years or so (1). Over 30 million jobs will open up overall, and many of those will require knowledge and skills that the next generations cannot supply (2). Disciplines like chemistry, geology, and metallurgy were vibrant a generation ago with strong academic programs churning out engineers and scientists with advanced degrees. Today, at least in the West, such fields have given way to biology, computer science, and finance. Not only are the experts retiring but whole disciplines are in decline.

Although nearly three-quarters of HR professionals acknowledge that loss of boomers’ skills is a problem, few have taken action (3). And the longer companies wait to address the issue, the worse it gets.

It doesn’t need to be this way. At Imaginatik, we’ve spent nearly 20 years helping organizations use online, crowd-sourced Idea Challenges to become more collaborative and innovative. Such idea campaigns can also be used to manage the “Silver Tsunami” transition quickly, cheaply, and at very large scale, because they:

  • identify those with specific skills and a willingness to help others.
  • connect senior and junior workers in formal and informal “mentoring” relationships to close the skills gap preemptively
  • build a “living” database of knowledge and expertise that remains long after the senior generation has retired

Here’s how it works: a leader or manager launches a crowdsourced “call for ideas” on a specific topic where a high degree of domain-specific skill or expertise is required. Anywhere from dozens to thousands of people can be invited to participate. When managed well, these Challenges draw hundreds, or even thousands, of submissions – and usually several times as many comments and votes.

Challenges are a powerful way for organizations to solve thorny business or technical problems in the here-and-now. Even better, a record of ideas, comments, and suggestions also persists in the database post-Challenge, and can be mined in the future when similar skills or expertise are required. Smart organizations take this “surfaced” knowledge and curate it actively.

Furthermore, the ensuing discussion from a Challenge – both online and offline –engenders deep, meaningful subject-matter dialogue that typically continues afterward, and often deepens over time. Hidden experts and specialists across the organization become more obvious to younger workers who need coaching and skills development – and vice-versa. Senior workers are essentially “raising a hand” as implicit mentors by contributing to these Challenges. The best HR departments take note of these behavioral indicators to invite these hand-raisers to participate in more formal training and mentoring programs for the next generation of skill workers.

Sometimes, today’s most vexing business problems (like the Silver Tsunami) cannot be solved by the traditional levers – HR databases, skills surveys, classroom training programs, etc. Instead, consider addressing the problem head-on with the help of Challenge-based online collaboration and idea-generation programs.

(1) Cohn, V., and Taylor, P. (2010) Pew Research: Baby Boomers Approach 65 –Glumly, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/12/20/baby-boomers-approach-65-glumly/

(2) Bidwell, A. (2013) Economy Will Face Shortage of 5 Million Workers in 2020, US News and World Report, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/07/08/report-economy-will-face-...

(3) SHRM –AARP Strategic Workforce Planning Survey (2012) http://www.shrm.org/research/surveyfindings/articles/pages/strategicwork...

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