When Mehbs Remtulla sold his business at the age of 46, the pharmacist-turned-advertising agency head believed he’d sink into a leisurely life of playing golf and travelling the world.
“After four months of doing that, I was climbing the walls, because I had no purpose,” says Mr. Remtulla, who is now 69.
So he began volunteering as an adviser to health care startups and talking to like-minded people about what older workers do when society expects them to retire.
The result of his conversations, launched four years ago, was What’s neXT?, an organization that connects mid-to-late-career workers and retirees with opportunities for flexible work and continued professional development. Through conversations and panel discussions with its 1,200 community members around the world, What’s neXT?! is helping older workers who might otherwise see retirement as a loss of their purpose connect with one another.
But the venture could also help solve one of Canada’s biggest economic challenges – the labour shortage. The latest figures from Statistics Canada suggest there were almost one million unfilled positions in September, or a vacancy rate of 5.7 per cent. The pandemic and a hot economy aren’t entirely to blame. As the baby-boomer generation moves into its late 60s and 70s, many employees are retiring and taking decades of institutional knowledge, expertise, and talent with them.
According to Statistics Canada labour force data from August, 307,000 Canadians retired in 2022. That is up 32 per cent from a year earlier, when 233,000 workers retired.
Groups like What’s neXT?! see employees 55 and older not only as people who still want meaning and purpose in their lives through work, but also as an invaluable resource for businesses.
“Work does so many things for us,” says Deb Stevens, a 61-year-old sole proprietor of a New York executive search firm specializing in pharmaceutical advertising. She is also a community member of What’s neXT?! and part of the group’s Idea Lab Council, an internal group within What’s neXT?! tasked with sharpening the group’s focus.
“It’s how we structure our day. It’s where we get our identity or some of our sense of fulfilment and self-esteem. It’s where we meet and talk to other people.”
For her and many of her fellow sole proprietors, retirement isn’t even on the horizon. Ms. Stevens’s industry has always had a chronic shortage of skilled advertisers capable of producing brilliant campaigns for the pharmaceutical industry. In her experience, the question of how old an employee is simply isn’t a factor. “Nobody’s asking us to leave,” she says.
But ageism is a fact of life for workers in Canada and elsewhere. Akira Mitsumasu, a 58-year-old former global vice-president of marketing for Japan Airlines (and What’s neXT?! community member who sits on the Idea Lab Council), says employees who reach 60 are often pushed into secondments or part-time work arrangements.
“Older workers, as they get to a certain vintage, lose opportunities for training and are second-guessed,” says Deborah McPhee, a professor of human resource management at Brock University’s Goodman School of Business in St. Catharines, Ont. “They’re not given the same opportunities because it’s assumed they’re going to retire.”
Prof. McPhee says older workers bring with them a strong work ethic, decades of institutional knowledge, and the ability to mentor younger workers.
But What’s neXT?! isn’t content with simply trumpeting these virtues to the wider world.
“We aren’t these people who are going to just issue pronouncements around ageism or the opportunity around longevity,” says Peter Heywood, strategic adviser at What’s neXT?! We want people to be part of a community that builds things.” That said, What’s neXT?! doesn’t see itself as the one-size-fits-all solution to Canada’s labour shortage.
“We’re not trying to boil the ocean,” Mr. Heywood says. “We don’t want to capture every single old person there.”
What’s neXT?!’s mission today, he says, is to bring in business managers and law partners who still have a sense of drive, but feel unmoored by the notion of retirement. Perhaps one day, Mr. Heywood says, they will reach out to blue-collar workers like auto workers or clerks.
Those are the very types of workers employers are most desperate to hire. According to Statistics Canada data, the highest demand for skilled employees are in construction, manufacturing and accommodation and food services, with just under 50 per cent of all firms in these sectors worried about recruitment over the next three months. For the whole private sector, that figure is closer to 40 per cent.
But if What’s neXT?! has anything to say about older workers, it’s that their willingness and desire to work will surprise younger employees and bosses. Ms. McPhee and Mr. Remtulla both acknowledge that immigration will play a key role in offsetting Canada’s skilled labour shortages, but older workers may very well decide to remain in manufacturing, construction and other blue-collar industries if companies treat them well.
“Maybe that older worker in construction doesn’t come back as a worker,” Ms. McPhee says. “Maybe they come back as the foreman.”