Taking Time Off: Can It Hurt Your Market Value?

America is on the brink of one of the most momentous demographic shifts in history: the retirement of the baby boomers. There are about 78 million boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and as they begin hitting retirement age-the first wave turns 65 in 2011-experts anticipate workforce shortages. While some boomers are expected to keep working, others will leave current jobs for less-stressful careers, seek part-time or consulting positions, or retire.

One way to handle the baby boomers’ workforce impact, some experts say, is by tapping into the pool of full-time moms re-entering the workforce. And, according to a report by the Center for Work-Life Policy and the Harvard Business Review, many women who take time off for their families want to re-enter the workforce.

The report, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Women on the Road to Success, says 37 percent of highly qualified women leave the workforce for some period of time, and 93 percent want to go back to work. “Many find this more difficult than they anticipated. Only 74% succeed in reentering the workforce and only 40% return to full-time jobs,” the report says.

“It would be in [employers’] best interests to take a look at this group of moms because they’re going to find a dedicated and smart … group of people who want to work hard, who need the money, and they’ll be loyal to you if you’re good to them,” said Jen Singer, creator and editor of MommaSaid.net, a Web community geared to at-home moms.

A Workforce in Flux

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics says the growth of the labor force will slow in the years ahead, largely due to aging baby boomers and the leveling off of women’s workforce participation after years of “remarkable increases.” The generation after the boomers-“baby-busters” born between 1965 and 1976-is much smaller, the BLS points out, a size difference that also will contribute to the slowed growth of the labor force.

To confront the slowed growth, some experts say employers will become more flexible to attract more workers.

“Employers will have no choice but to be more flexible. They will be offering opportunities for creative scheduling and … opportunities to work at home. There will be a whole restructuring of the way work gets done,” said Roberta Chinsky Matuson, principal of Human Resource Solutions in Northampton, Mass. “That will help moms who want to reenter the work force, but stay at home and work.”

Allison O’Kelly, CEO of Mom Corps, an Atlanta-based staffing firm that focuses on placing workers that seek flexible schedules in part-time, contract or project positions, said companies will be more flexible when it benefits them. She pointed to the accounting and finance industries, which have become more flexible due to employee shortages spurred by regulations. “I don’t think it’s necessarily because they are more forward-thinking than other industries, they just have a need and will be more creative in the ways they get their staff,” she said.

Chinsky Matuson said employers also will learn to emphasize results over hours as a measure of productivity.

“I think companies will have to focus more on results and less on face time. … It’s not all about the number of hours you are in the office. It’s about if the work gets done,” she said.

Changing Mindsets

As baby boomers leave the workforce, so will the mindset that’s often been detrimental to women taking time off after having children, some experts say.

Baby boomers “were the generation that was supposed to have it all at the same time. When baby boomers stayed home with kids, they were giving up the ’cause.’ So there was an extra stigma for baby boomers returning to work than there is for their younger cohorts,” said Singer of MommaSaid.net. “I don’t think the Generation X, at least among their peers, face as big a bias as the baby-boomer women.”

Bonnie D. Monych, author of “Shift Happens! Straight Talk about Jobs, Work and Careers,” and president of The New Workplace Inc., in Houston, agreed with Singer.

Baby boomers “had a difficult time understanding women leaving and coming back. As those people leave, it’s becoming more acceptable to rotate in and out,” Monych said. “The attitudes are completely different in the new generations. As we get more and more people from new generations in manager positions, you’ll see a significant change.”

Tom Gimbel, CEO of The LaSalle Network, a staffing firm in Chicago, offered a different take.

“I interview baby boomers all the time who work in corporations … They say they would take a part-time mom with experience,” Gimbel said. “The problem is everything can’t be so flexible to accommodate the back-to-work parent, and they have an over-inflated sense of self-worth. They can’t pull in what they were earning five years ago or what someone who was doing it all along earns.”

Dr. Heidi Hartmann, president of the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said she sees another factor contributing to changing mindsets.

“I think that if anything is changing for younger people it’s that more men say they want to be involved in child rearing and take some time off for child rearing. Once it’s seen as a more gender-neutral phenomenon, then I think we can see a whole change in the attitude in the workplace,” she said. “Taking time off for various reasons is not a sign of lack of commitment. You have a lot of different interests and you do different things, you travel, pursue art, raise children.”