Natural disasters are hitting the headlines more and more often, but the Silver Tsunami is not that kind of disaster. Instead, it’s a name for a phenomenon that is likely to affect manufacturing across the nation: the retirement of a large cadre of Baby Boomers.
The average employed factory worker is 38 — but the average highly skilled manufacturing worker is 56. The pandemic accelerated retirement, with many people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, or who decided that it was too dangerous to continue going in to work as COVID-19 outbreaks hit plants, deciding to retire completely during the shut downs.
The fact that higher ages put people at greater risk made it particularly likely that experienced factory workers would be the ones who would make this choice.
There were labor shortages in manufacturing before the pandemic, and increasing shortages in many fields since 2020 have just exacerbated the problem. There was also a skills gap, as younger workers and their parents and guidance counselors responded to offshoring with mistrust for manufacturing as a career.
Add an aging population and the impending retirement of the baby boomer generation across the board, and it’s clear that manufacturing will be facing a serious problem.
The impact on society and the economy
Some observations on the Silver Tsunami focus on the problem of caring for the increasing aging population. Nations like Japan which were on the leading edge of the trend have turned to robots for elder care.
Homelessness among the elderly and medical needs requiring health care workers who are also in short supply have also gotten attention.
But for manufacturing, the biggest problem will not be the problems of the older retirees, but the problems of employers who rely on the older, skilled human worker.
Solutions: preparing for the Silver Tsunami
Working on the Skills Gap has been a focus for forward-thinking manufacturers for some time. Rexroth, for example, has been working to support STEM programs and apprenticeships in the United States as well as elsewhere.
A commitment to corporate engagement along with educators and government is probably the best approach to make sure we get skilled manufacturing workers into the pipeline for the future. An investment in worker training is probably the highest priority for the near future and present.
At the same time, thoughtful progress in automation could make it possible — and desirable — for older workers to stay longer. Investment in wages will probably have to be part of the plan, but attention to health and comfort could make more of a difference than many employers have considered.
A final note — we know that many people consider the phrase “Silver Tsunami” ageist. We use it with no intention to be disrespectful. We think that the image helps us show how much of an issue this could be for manufacturing. Disagree? Let us know in the comments!