The Tides of Time
Another year, another steady retirement rate. Since the beginning of the decade, federal human resources watchers have been predicting a tsunami of baby boomer retirements that would empty government offices, leaving a handful of ill-prepared Generation Xers to handle all of Uncle Sam's work. How many times have we been told that half the federal workforce and 80 percent of senior executives would soon be out the door?
Instead, the numbers from the Office of Personnel Management's FedScope data system have revealed, year after year, a steady and manageable retirement rate across the federal government. The most recent numbers, for fiscal 2007, showed that the retirement rate was 3.7 percent last year, including regular, early, disability and other retirements. That calculation uses the full-time permanent employment total for the end of the previous fiscal year as the baseline. That rate is the same rate as the previous year.
The worries about a rise in retirements were not completely unfounded. There has been an increase. In fiscal 2003, the retirement rate was only 3.1 percent, so there has been a real retirement hike. Indeed, the absolute number of retirements was 10,000 higher in fiscal 2007 than in 2003. Given that real increase, the hand-wringing over the alleged retirement tsunami served a useful purpose in that it encouraged federal executives to look at their agencies' own workforce statistics and to plan appropriately.
Some agencies, because of hiring patterns two and three decades ago, have indeed faced a retirement crunch. The Social Security Administration, for example, saw 3,000 retirements out of a 61,000-person workforce in 2007. That's a nearly 5 percent retirement rate. Smartly, the administration's executives began planning for this exodus at the beginning of the decade. They encouraged some people to retire early so the retirements would be spread out more manageably than if everyone left at once. And they began hiring extra employees early so experienced employees would be in place to handle the slack caused by the loss of so much institutional memory. They knew that a retirement in 2007 would be offset by a hire in 2004, giving the replacement three years to get the demands of the job down before their predecessor started drawing a pension check.
Any executives caught by surprise by a rise in retirements, now or in the years to come, will have only themselves to blame for not taking a good hard look at their workforce statistics and getting a workforce plan in place.
Across the government as a whole, however, the retirement rate has been entirely manageable. Wise workforce managers have forecast their expected losses not just to retirement, but also to normal quit rates, terminations and even deaths (Between 3,000 and 4,000 employees die each year). They have then set their hiring policies to account for such losses.
The idea that retirements would lead to a crisis is in itself quite fallible, since a crisis is something that happens suddenly, unexpectedly and catastrophically. A retirement is 25, even 35 years in the making. If you didn't see that coming, then you just weren't looking.