No call to panic, but be prepared

The Gazette Editorial Board


The so-called “silver tsunami” has been predicted for some time now. The baby boomer generation’s march toward retirement is driving concerns about filling big holes in the private and public sector employment ranks, especially where high levels of expertise are critical. That march is getting uncomfortably close, an Aug. 17 Gazette report noted.

State and local government retirements may likely be noticed the most and the soonest, according to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. Within five years, half of state and local government workers across the nation will reach the age — generally mid-50s — where they can take full retirement benefits.

The numbers are similar in Iowa, where, for example, half of the state government workforce — not counting those who work for the state’s public universities and other Board of Regents institutions — are age 50 or older.

State employee union officials say the potential problems are made worse by three consecutive years of staffing reductions that have left about 1,100 fewer employees, with many positions required to do more with less and becoming less attractive. And if benefits such as defined pension plans would be replaced by, say, a 401(k)-type retirement option, which some other states are considering, that could further hurt recruiting.

These concerns should be taken seriously. Succession plans and making sure retirees pass along vital institutional knowledge are important. Our government employees oversee taxpayer money and public services, as well as increasingly complicated regulations. Small cities could be especially vulnerable.

Yet we also expect that any Iowa “tsunami” will likely arrive in phases, instead of one big wash. Predicting retirement trends is a moving target affected by the economy’s ups and downs, more people living longer and wanting to work full-time longer, and new technology making some positions unnecessary, while also attracting younger, tech-savvy employees to others.

We don’t see Iowa facing an imminent crisis. But planning ahead and being prepared makes sense. As it usually does.

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