Riding the Silver Tsunami

Thursday, November 29, 2018

You may have heard the term “silver tsunami” before. It is an easy way to highlight the looming impact of mass retirements from the workforce by the Baby Boomer generation. Here are some statistics to provide context of the situation:

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2022 more than 25 percent of U.S. workers will be 55 years old or older (up from 14 percent in 2002).

Strategies for transferring expertise from one generation to the next are not a new concept. However, the amount of expertise leaving the workforce in the next five to 10 years is staggering, and provides additional emphasis on finding timely, effective solutions.

Young professionals and experts about to embark on their retirement years might want to consider how the transfer of knowledge will benefit not only them, but their organization as well. However, the mindset of those involved plays a significant role in maximizing potential benefits. Knowledge transfer can break down without good expectations and understanding of the process for sharing and gaining expertise. To mitigate risks and maximize the benefits, consider these tips for those receiving and imparting that knowledge.

Find the right wave. The “right wave” is defined by timing and uniqueness of the learning opportunity. In regard to knowledge transfer, knowing when to turn to those more senior and experienced can bring great learning opportunities. What does the right wave look like? Common examples of these learning opportunities include collaborating with experts on a project, shadowing an expert, or even asking an expert out for a cup of coffee for advice.

Remember it’s OK to fall. Working with experts can be intimidating. “Do I have what it takes to ride this wave?” It is natural to question yourself, especially in comparison to a true expert. Don’t be afraid to fall. The benefit of working and learning from experts is that failures often turn into the best learning opportunities. Also, bouncing back is a sign of passion and commitment, which is typically met with additional respect. Still worried about stumbling? Seek smaller or more contained activities that prepare you for larger opportunities.

Honor the decades it took to build up this expertise. Most experts have worked a long time to build up their knowledge base. You aren’t going to learn everything they have to teach within a matter of weeks, or even months. Gaining expertise is a not-very-fast process. In addition to time, it will take a combination of experiences and coaching to build your skills. You might have to ride multiple waves to really understand how to surf. Wondering how to speed up this process? Start by moderating your expectations. Proactively seek feedback as you build new skills, and always look for at least one opportunity for improvement.


Work hard, and demonstrate care for the expertise. Experts have a deep passion in their field. When engaging with an expert, honor that passion and actively demonstrate that you have an equal interest. Experts don’t have to share their expertise; they are looking for the right person to build on their legacy. And above all else, remember that experts are more than a Wikipedia page—something you can query when you have a question and then move on from. They’re people whose relationships require effort. Wondering how to show your passion for the work? Help the expert understand why it is that you are interested in learning from them. Explain how your passions connect to, and build upon, the passions of the expert.

What if you’re the one sharing your knowledge and expertise with the rising generations in the workforce? Consider these tips to ensure a smooth transition.

Consider what challenges remain unsolved. It is an honor to be considered an expert. You have built a body of knowledge that is both unique and valuable. To ensure this legacy is fully honored, consider: What do you hope is accomplished by sharing your expertise? What meaningful, unsolved problems might be addressed by someone with your expertise and more time? What do you wish you were able to have accomplished that someone might else be able to focus on?


Listen to the ideas of those up and coming in your organization. As the saying goes, an expert has seen it all. Rather than using this experience as a blunt tool to strike down ideas, consider leveraging your experience in a healthier way by shaping and guiding the perspectives of those around you. After all, “knowing” is the enemy of learning—if you think you’ve seen it all, you might miss what’s new and valuable.

Consider a time when you were not the expert you are today. You were once a young professional, excited at the first opportunity to learn from an expert. Avoid taking for granted the combination of passion and potential. You are where you are because someone took a chance and invested in you.

Ultimately, it is my firm belief that the looming impact of aging populations in the workforce is much more an opportunity for all, rather than some issue organizations need to resolve. When approached proactively and empathetically, organizations retain valuable expertise, employees gain valuable expertise, and experts are recognized for producing a career of valuable expertise. All told, riding the silver tsunami is less about avoiding the crash of a massive wave and more so enjoying the journey that the situation presents.

About the Author

Rick Rittmaster is a talent development professional who partners with individuals, teams, executives, and external resources to build a more capable and engaged workforce. Working in L&D and talent strategy, he enjoys the sometimes-tricky job of building people-centered solutions that advance enterprise business goals. Rittmaster also advises on innovation strategy, learning strategy, change management, and employee engagement.

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