Agency leadership, job satisfaction matter in feds’ decisions to retire

Age matters, but federal employees’ overall job satisfaction and experience with their agency’s leadership also could be important as an aging federal workforce makes retirement plans.

“The two things that really seemed to make a difference, where the agency could have some impact on employee decisions, was the overall leadership of the agency and the person’s attachment to their particular job,” said Dr. Greg Lewis, co-author of a new federal retirement report and a public management and policy professor at Georgia State University.

Lewis and co-author David Pitts examined federal personnel records for employees ages 50 and older and analyzed feedback from the 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. They used that data to determine what other factors — besides employees’ ages — might factor into their decisions to retire from the civil service.

They looked at responses to six questions on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey that evaluated a person’s satisfaction with agency leadership, supervisors, recognition and rewards, experience with co-workers, opportunities for advancement and pay, as well as overall job satisfaction.

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“We expected that the more satisfied people were with all of those things, the less likely they would be to say they were planning to retire,” Lewis said. “What was surprising was, that was true for both agency leadership and for job satisfaction, but it wasn’t true for any of the other factors.”

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Perhaps more surprisingly, federal employees who were more satisfied with their co-workers, promotional opportunities and the recognition they received from their agencies, were more likely to indicate that they planned to retire compared to employees who were less satisfied with those aspects of their job.

“What we expected to find was that in general, the more satisfied they were with their jobs, the less likely they would be to tell us that they were planning to retire within the next year or within the next three years,” Lewis said.

Roughly 30 percent of the federal workforce is eligible to retire by 2017. But many federal employees appear to be delaying retirement, leading many in the human capital community to wonder when exactly the “retirement tsunami” will actually hit.

“To a large extent it hasn’t happened, quite possibly because of the Great Recession,” Lewis said.

He said age does in fact seem to contribute to a person’s decision to retire, as data has shown that more people tend to retire once they reach age 55, 60, 62 or 65.

“Even people who are meeting the 65-year-old [threshold] with 30 years of service, even those people only have about a 25 percent probability of retiring that year,” Lewis said. “We see big jumps in retirements when people become eligible to retire. We see a general increase with age in particular, but we’re still seeing a substantial number of people who are making the decision to postpone retirement past that threshold.”

Federal managers collect and disseminate little information about the factors that contribute to a federal employee’s decision to retire. But “agency leadership” had the strongest impact on delaying retirement, Lewis said.

“Successful leaders balance multiple priorities, but to the extent that they are able to make the job satisfaction and development of their older employees one of them, it would potentially keep some individuals from retiring quite as soon,” the report said. “Agency leaders can easily work into their motivational messaging comments that value contributions of older employees, and even symbolic gestures could work to the advantage of organizations aiming to keep older employees from retiring.”

Though the “retirement wave” has yet to hit agencies in earnest, Lewis said he predicts that it eventually will come.

Federal employees over age 50 made up roughly 45.5 percent of the workforce at the end of the fiscal 2014. And new employees are entering the federal workforce later than members of previous generations, as positions become more technical in nature and younger generations of workers spend more time in school. 

“The federal workforce is by far older than state and local government workforces or private sector workforces, and eventually that retirement tsunami just has to hit,” Lewis said.

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