The US real estate industry workforce faces a retirement cliff

At many firms, baby boomers still run the show—but probably not for long. It’s time to help fortify the real estate leadership pipeline and develop the next generation.

James Baker

United States

Tim Coy

United States

A large number of real estate professionals, including many leaders, are on the precipice of retiring. In 10 years, nearly 40% of the total US real estate industry, or just over one million people across all levels, will reach the age of retirement. That compares to only 23% of employees across all industries, including other financial services sectors such as banking (23%) and insurance (24%).1

Potentially more concerning, an outsized portion of those real estate industry professionals hold senior leadership to C-suite positions. The Deloitte Center for Financial Services estimates that 59% of existing leaders, or around 761,000 people, will reach the age of retirement over the next 10 years. These predictions were derived from the analysis of BoardEx leadership data (see “About this prediction”).

Who might take their place? And what can leaders at real estate firms do to help pass along their institutional knowledge?

How we got here: An aging real estate workforce

At 48.9 years old, the real estate industry holds the highest median age of any financial services sector, ahead of insurance (44.0), banking (43.5), financial investments (43.1), and nondepository credit (41.9). Real estate is also older than all other comparably sized commercial industries, those with at least one million employees in the United States (figure 1).2

The average age of retirement in the United States is 64.7 for men and 62.1 for women.3 As of 2023, 13% of the total real estate industry is already age 65 or older, compared to only 7% on average across all industries, and 5% in other financial services industries (figure 2).4 Leadership roles in real estate hold an even larger share: 25% of real estate employees who currently hold senior leadership positions or C-suite titles are already over the age of 65.5

There are several reasons behind real estate’s workforce age composition shift: deficiencies in recruiting and retaining younger talent, reliance on experienced hires, as well as challenges with outdated job roles, talent processes, and culture.6 Explored in more depth in a 2020 Deloitte article, these dynamics have led to a notable lag in generational diversity in real estate compared to many other industries.

These trends in real estate are compounded by broader aging workforce dynamics across many other US industries as well. Roughly 20% of Americans over the age of retirement were employed in 2023, double the level from over 30 years ago.7

The real estate leadership pipeline should be addressed

Transition and succession planning should be integral as a part of firms’ near-term strategic considerations, especially when the next generation of leaders in real estate is brought into the fold. The margin for error is likely slim because not all employees in the talent pipeline may be qualified or willing to take on vacating leadership positions.

Among the next generations in line, employees currently ages 35 to 54 could total 1.3 million employees by 2033, growing at a pace of 1% per year from current levels. But, according to our analysis, 41% of those are already in leadership positions, leaving only 789,000 employees between the ages of 35 to 54 in non-leadership positions to fill 761,000 potentially vacating leadership roles. This represents a gap of only 28,000 employees, the tightest of any financial services industry (figure 3). Banking has an excess of about 723,000 non-leadership employees, while insurance has over 492,000.

About this prediction

Real estate leadership age data was collected from BoardEx and includes individual leader information from public and private real estate companies across the United States. Coverage for public real estate companies contains over 1,500 individuals from 94 of the top 100 real estate organizations by 2023 market capitalization, as well as over 1,000 leaders from 133 public real estate institutions. In addition, more than 3,400 leaders from 1,700 private real estate companies were included. These organizations span across the industry from real estate owners and investors (real estate investment trusts, funds) as well as service companies (brokerages, advisors, and managers).

Leadership roles were standardized into two primary categories:

  • C-suite
  • Senior leadership: President, vice president, partner, principal, managing director, head of department or region, leader, officer, among other titles.
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It’s time to get proactive about succession planning

In any given year, approximately 50% of succession plans for chief executive officers (CEOs) in real estate start from scratch, only beginning when existing CEOs transition out of these roles.8 That reactive, rather than proactive, approach to filling leadership vacancies could lead to business continuity disruptions, especially if timing isn’t aligned. This is because it can take years to plan for leadership succession and errors in judgment can be costly; it may take as many as 18 months for boards to determine if they have made an appropriate appointment to a C-suite level role.9 Addressing the retirement cliff should be a board-level priority; if senior management teams aren’t thinking about succession plans themselves, it should be the board’s responsibility to push them.

Gen X, millennials, and even Gen Z are next in line since an increasing share of the baby boomer generation is likely to retire over the next decade. These younger generations can impact the evolution of real estate, infusing opportunities for new thinking across technology adoption, culture, operations, and sustainability. Deloitte’s latest Gen Z and Millennial survey revealed that younger generations of respondents already feel as though they are leading change on product and service offerings to clients; diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; personal development; and work/life balance.10

Younger workers are also growing to expect more from their organizations as strategies for attracting and retaining next-generation talent continue to evolve.11 Organizations can show that they are prioritizing employees, including Gen Z and millennials, by addressing wealth inequality, supporting mental health initiatives, prioritizing climate action, and inspiring the workforce to take part in both everyday actions (like banning single-use plastics) and long-term strategies (such as greener office locations and supply chains). Other common talent levers, especially for younger workers, include having a clear and rational hybrid work policy and building a culture that empowers people at every level of the organization.12

Until that time comes, the real estate industry should act to build up this next generation of leaders and fortify the pipeline. A critical step is to work to ensure all of that expertise doesn’t walk out the door before they have the opportunity to reach the highest levels within an organization. Leaders can take steps to extract knowledge from the aging workforce and work it into systems and processes. One way this can be done is to develop two-way knowledge-sharing and mentorship programs: Firms can encourage experienced professionals to teach less experienced employees core sector and leadership-building and relationship-building skills. At the same time, younger employees can offer informal learning sessions to help older employees embrace digital tools and digitization. Real estate firms can also pivot talent development strategies by adopting a skills-based approach. Doing so can begin the transition from legacy command-and-control hierarchies to building cross-functional alignment and integration. These options may help fill knowledge gaps and can prepare younger employees to start taking over parts of these businesses.

Modern technologies and opportunities to learn about more cutting-edge topics—data analytics, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence—are also playing a bigger role in how firms compete for talent and fill in knowledge gaps. Employees are seeking organizations that have increasingly complex technology capabilities and integration so that they can hone their skill sets.13 And technologies like artificial intelligence are already reshaping how existing work gets done while also potentially creating new jobs. From Deloitte’s first quarter 2024 US economic forecast’s upside scenario for labor markets, AI would be the catalyst for enhanced productivity in a potential “golden era.”14 Real estate firms have not traditionally been leaders in this space: Over 61% of firms from the 2024 Deloitte real estate outlook survey noted they are still dependent on legacy technologies.15 As real estate firms plan to adapt their talent pipelines for the retirement cliff ahead, they should consider that the technologies they employ, and perhaps even more so the technologies they do not, may influence hiring and retention decisions for top talent.

Finally, succession planning isn’t a one-and-done activity; it’s something that should be an ongoing and proactive practice. To focus on longevity, executives and their boards should develop succession plans that help enable leadership transitions and review them regularly. These plans should evolve through business and economic cycles, ensuring that the company and its talent pipeline can continue to move forward, even when unforeseen circumstances occur.

Real estate organizations should act on the impending retirement cliff now and prioritize fortifying their talent pipelines. This will likely require proactive board-level succession planning, attention to growing and developing younger leaders, and investment in the right technologies that can identify or fill in where potential control failures may exist should key stakeholders retire. Collectively, these efforts can help the industry move forward and bridge the transition to the next generation of real estate.

by

James Baker

United States

Tim Coy

United States

Endnotes

  1. Deloitte Center for Financial Services analysis of US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, accessed January 2024.

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  2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 18b: Labor force statistics from the current population survey,” January 26, 2024.

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  3. Alicia H. Munnell, “How to think about recent trends in the average retirement age?,” Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, July 19, 2022.

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  4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 18b: Labor force statistics from the current population survey.”

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  5. Deloitte Center for Financial Services analysis of BoardEx LLC data, accessed January 2024.

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  6. Jim Berry and John D’Angelo, “Preparing for the future of commercial real estate,” Deloitte, September 14, 2020.

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  7. Richard Fry and Dana Braga, “Older workers are growing in number and earning higher wages,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2023.

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  8. Miriam Hall, “A seismic generational shift is afoot among New York’s real estate stalwarts,” Bisnow, November 12, 2023.

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  9. Ibid.

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  10. Michele Parmelee, “Making waves: How Gen Zs and millennials are prioritizing – and driving – change in the workplace,” Deloitte Insights, May 17, 2023.

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  11. Michele Parmelee, “Don’t want to lose your Gen Z and millennial talent? Here’s what you can do,” Deloitte Insights, May 18, 2022.

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  12. Ibid.

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  13. Tara Mahoutchian, Nate Paynter, Nic Scoble-Williams, John Forsythe, Shannon Poynton, Martin Kamen, Lauren Kirby, Kraig Eaton, and Yves Van Durme, “Powering human impact with technology,” Deloitte Insights, January 9, 2023.

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  14. Robyn Gibbard, “United States economic forecast: Q1 2024,” Deloitte Global Economics Research Center, March 19, 2024.

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  15. Jeffrey J. Smith, Kathy Feucht, Renea Burns, and Tim Coy, “2024 commercial real estate outlook: Finding terra firma,” Deloitte Center for Financial Services, September 2023.

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Acknowledgments

The authors wish to acknowledge Jessica Domnitz, Anuja Sandeep Mhatre, Narasimham Mulakaluri, and Gaurashi Sawant for their extensive contributions to the development of this report. We would also like to thank our colleagues Renea Burns, Patricia Danielecki, and Jeff Smith for their insights and guidance.

Cover art by: Natalie Pfaff