The federal government estimates that more than 10,000 baby boomers retire every day—4 million people every year. Between them, soon-to-retire boomers own 2.34 million businesses, with nearly 25 million employees. Boomer-owned businesses generate $949 billion in payroll, and $5.14 trillion in sales. Yet the vast majority of boomer business owners lack a written transition plan for when they retire, and the coming shift in ownership—what some have termed the “Silver Tsunami”—could affect one-sixth of U.S. workers, decimate membership in local business associations and chambers of commerce, and have ripple effects throughout the entire economy.
For the movement to democratize the workplace, however, this transition could also present a tremendous opportunity. Only around 20 percent of retiring small business owners find a buyer, and when they do, buyers tend to be competitors, larger companies, private equity firms or predatory real estate developers. The above actors, however, rarely have the best interest of workers and local communities at heart, thrusting many into precarious work and in some cases driving gentrification.
But there’s another way out. Rather than close up shop or be bought up by the highest bidder, businesses can transition into democratic employee-ownership, such as worker cooperatives—businesses owned, controlled and managed by workers, and that operate according to a “one worker, one vote” decision-making process. The manifold benefits of this and other types of democratic employee ownership include reductions in intra-firm income inequality, increased voice and say by workers themselves over working conditions, increased productivity and efficiency, potential spillover into increased political participation, and eco-friendliness.