For decades, they’ve quietly maintained the legacy systems that keep financial services, government, and other mission-critical applications ticking.

But new figures suggest more than half of over-50 IT workers don’t intend to stay in their current jobs, forcing tech executives to ways to replace crucial skills that are becoming rarer every year.

Recent Gartner research painted a stark picture of workers’ intentions, with 83.8 per cent of 18-to-29 year old IT workers saying they don’t have a high intent to stay in their current jobs and employers warned that demanding a return to the office will be a key factor.

Research has long shown that workers are attracted to a challenge and want to feel valued in their jobs – and with young workers wanting to work differently, employers keen to maintain and grow their ranks must meet workers halfway or risk losing them.

The dynamics, however, are different amongst the 50-plus crowd, where Gartner found fully 51.8 per cent of workers said they don’t plan to stay in their jobs.

Unlike their younger colleagues, for whom the right salary and working conditions can do wonders for retention, many of these older workers have simply had it – and as the Great Resignation bites, many are planning to wind back their hours, shift to consultancy roles, or drop out of the market completely.

Once they leave, history has shown, many older workers will never return: many report being unable to attract the attention of recruiters who feel over-50s are too old, too inflexible, or too expensive.

Yet they are also deeply experienced – meaning companies risk losing their expertise in core systems such as mainframes and midrange servers, as well as COBOL, FORTRAN and the other languages they rely on.

If employers have to replace them with younger workers, it will be crucial to find new ways of marketing these positions as relevant – including highlighting the industry transition towards more open mainframe efforts that are more closely aligned with current cloud and distributed-systems platforms.

“With many professionals retiring, there is the chance for newer employees to become very valuable, very quickly,” notes Jeff Cherrington, VP of System Z product management with legacy specialist firm Rocket Software.

“As the people running some of the most important programs and applications at an organisation, those who excel in the mainframe space will receive good compensation and job security while working on exciting, high-impact projects.”

“When recruiting, companies should be sure to frame discussions with these perspectives.”

Rethink your attitude towards over-50s

Concerns about the loss of legacy skills have been growing for many years – one 2002 forecast predicted a mainframe skills crisis would push the industry to breaking point by 2007 – but the industry has held off complete disaster by reinventing legacy architectures and building bridges to contemporary platforms.

Yet the industry was already fighting on shifting sands before the pandemic began, with Deloitte noting 23 per cent of the mainframe workforce had already been lost – and 63 per cent of empty positions are unable to be filled.

And while many companies have convinced staff to stay by throwing more money at them, the pandemic’s king hit could see the bottom drop out of the market as over-50s abandon the workforce to refocus their lives.

Given that it will take years for companies to fully transition away from legacy systems, CIOs must ensure they have an explicit strategy to deal with the rapid loss of over-50s’ skills.

Gartner recommends adopting human-centric value propositions that accommodate the changing circumstances of staff who not only want to work remotely but – in the case of older workers – may be transitioning to shorter-term consulting gigs or minimal part-time hours.

“While many CIOs are increasing compensation, most can’t pay top talent more than the digital giants and big multinationals do,” Gartner explains, adding IT workers have 10.6 per cent lower intent to stay, on average, than employees in other parts of the business.

“CIOs may need to advocate for more flexibility than the rest of the enterprise…. they can compete on work-life balance, aided by a flexible human-centric work design that also reduces fatigue and improves holistic well-being.”

Tech executives should adopt an “adaptive experiment-and-learn approach” that measures the effect of changes such as increasing equity on task assignments, promotions, rewards and recognition, and pay and benefits.

Gartner recognises five key elements of human-centric employee value propositions – radical flexibility, personal growth, holistic well-being, shared purpose, and deeper connections – and notes that “future-of-work decisions can impact radical flexibility and holistic well-being the most”.

“This type of work reinvention is unprecedented, and no one can offer a benchmarked formula,” Gartner says. “CIOs should start by defining their most critical outcomes, such as decreasing worker fatigue, increasing intent to stay and improving performance – and these outcomes should guide the whole future-of-work journey.”