Publisher's Perspective

Let’s just be honest about it: Everyone has had a co-worker who is just riding out the time until retirement.


No sense in denying that reality. It’s actually a familiar type—think about the Wally character in the Dilbert comic strip, whose only job duties seem to be to carry a coffee cup from one place to another while being unhelpful and negative. You’ve seen the pattern too. Doing the minimum to get by. Taking long lunches, disappearing on Friday afternoons, never taking initiative.

And typically little to nothing is done about them, for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’ve been friends with the boss for many years. Maybe there’s a general reluctance to rock the boat by giving low performance ratings.

With more Americans, including more federal employees, staying in the workplace longer, that problem likely will only grow in the years ahead. These are workers who, in the parlance now in vogue among HR types, are “disengaged.”

Among younger workers, disengagement is mainly a concern because it’s an indicator of potential turnover. The more disengaged they are, the more likely they are to quit and leave the employer with the challenge of finding and training a replacement. Among older workers, disengagement is mainly a concern because it’s an indicator of lack of productivity; they’re not about to quit, and it’s nearly impossible to fire them, after they’ve established decades of at least acceptable performance.

In that context, recent findings by the Gallup organization are especially troubling—especially if you’re going to be one of those extending their careers and don’t want to become an older version of Wally.

The survey included more than 115,000 interviews, about 8,000 of which involved federal employees. It found that the older the federal employee, the less likely the person is to use their strengths at work every day. From 85 percent in the under-30 set, that characteristic falls steadily for each age group until it’s down to 77 percent in the 65 and older set.

That happens to be the opposite of the pattern in the private sector, where that characteristic rises with each age group, from 82 to 86 percent.

“The federal government could be doing more to help its older workers use their strengths at work. It could structure positions and train supervisors to get the most out of their employees by discovering and maximizing their employees’ strengths,” it says. “Issues with engagement exist across the federal government, especially at the Department of Homeland Security, and part of this may be because thousands of employees do not get to use their strengths, or perhaps because their managers do not motivate them to do so.”

It said that there are currently over 165,000 60- to 64-year-old full-time government employees, 10,000 more than in 2009, “so it follows that in the next few years, the government can expect even more employees to be underutilized at work. When the median annual salary for a federal employee over the age of 65 is between $80,000-89,999, this underutilization may also have significant financial implications. If the federal government focused on strengths more systematically all government agencies could experience significant benefits across productivity, absenteeism, and turnover.”

Although the report didn’t delve into it, there is a related issue. If you are disengaged from your work, you feel dissatisfied. And that’s a bad way to spend the years leading up to your retirement.