26 September 2023

UNITED STATES: ‘Grey Wave’ retirements affecting public services

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A situation in Austin, Texas where one million residents were told to boil water before drinking it highlights a rapidly escalating problem in Municipal, State and Federal Public Services across the United States, according to observers.

The reason why one of the nation’s fastest growing cities did not have clean drinking water for three days was because 20 employees quit in one month — the highest number in five years.

Austin’s Water Operations Manager, Stephanie Sue said her Department was challenged “in that we have numerous vacancies”.

Many employers across the US have said they can’t find the workers they need, but the public sector is facing some of the biggest hiring problems.

Public sector workers tend to be older — just 8.1 per cent of the Federal workforce is younger than 30 — and older workers retired in droves during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than half of State and Municipal workers said they were considering leaving their positions voluntarily to retire, change jobs, or leave the workforce entirely, according to a December 2021 survey by the MissionSquare Research Institute.

One of the main reasons sighted for leaving was burn-out caused by the pandemic.

Many still at their posts said they were shouldering a larger workload since their colleagues left.

Public Policy Professor at the University of Maryland, Don Kettl said that for decades demographers had been warning of a “silver tsunami” or “grey wave” during which Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, would retire.

“That tsunami didn’t really happen until the pandemic,” Professor Kettl said.

“Boomers saw their home values and stock market portfolios soar and decided to retire rather than risk contracting COVID-19 at work,” he said.

“Many of the people who retired were long-time public sector employees who had institutional knowledge and expertise that is hard to replace.”

Professor Kettl said some had been working past retirement age, but the vitriol that arose during the pandemic towards Government workers because of mask mandates and general frustrations also made many Boomers decide it was time to call it quits.

Washington, 13 April 2022

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