There has been a lot of discussion about the increased importance of Millennials, and their impact on the multi-generational workplace. One of the more influential sources is a book called The 2020 Workplace by Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd, published in 2010. There’s a generous “look inside” option on their Amazon.com page right here. It’s a good book, and it’s true that there are a lot of generations in the workforce right now, expressing their perspectives in different ways.
However, I need to express some respectful disagreement. I think the notion of a multi-generational workforce in 2020 is an anomaly in terms of how labels have an outsized impact on how we treat people. This is important because labels such as “millennial” could be nonsense to begin with. Also, we need a sober sense of what current topics are only temporary. Predicting the future often involves the reading of known short-term trends and envisioning a future where the trend goes to extremes. I think this will not be the case with the multi-generational workplace. So, don’t worry about it.
To put things in perspective, I need to provide a clear definition of Millennial. In my opinion, Baby Boomers are those born from 1946-1964, Generation X (Gen X) are those born from 1965-1974, and Millennials are those born from 1976-1995. There’s some disagreement about the definitions and that’s your first clue that externally-imposed labels might be a problem. I’ll get to that in a minute.
A key detail is that Gen X is a 10-year cohort, whereas Baby Boomers and Millennials are 20-year cohorts. Gen X was born at a time when Baby Boomers were in their child-bearing years but chose to postpone having kids, for about one decade. Then beginning in 1976 Millennials, who were the children of Baby Boomers, started to arrive. In all discussions of what matters on a generational basis, the math suggests that Gen X would always be halved in their importance, because of their 10-year cohort. Also, Gen X is a generation Baby Boomers don’t think about as much because there’s no parent-child dynamic.
A key detail about the labour force is that overwhelmingly it is made up of people age 25-65. Yes, there are people working before the age of 25. However, many of them are busy with postsecondary education, travelling, struggling to get their first job, and, in some cases, raising children. By age 25 people are largely working, with the occasional maternity leave or brief spell of unemployment. Those over 65 may work as well, however, it’s not a universal experience.
Whenever we talk about humanity as “the workforce” we’re actually choosing a 40-year age bracket (aged 25-65) of people who would normally live for 80 years. The workforce is about half the population.
When we drop a generational definition into the middle of this 40-year age range of “the workforce”, it can be hit-and-miss. It is possible to fit an entire 20-year cohort into the workforce, such as in 1995, when Baby Boomers were aged 30-50. Indeed, Baby Boomers were very important at that time. Today Baby Boomers today are age 51-71. A lot have retired already, and a few more retire every year. They contribute strongly as individuals but their club isn’t so impactful. Gen X would feel their pain, if they had it in them.
The reverse dynamic is happening with Millennials. In 2005, Millennials were age 10-30, fewer than half of them truly in the labour force. They were not a small population, it’s just that the 40-year age bracket called “the workforce” ignored the youngest half of this crowd. Fast forward to today and they’re age 22-42, largely working, making up the largest fraction of the workforce. They are ambitious and they say what they want. They are the second-most-entitled population to ever walk the face of the earth. Gen X is strangely calm working with Millennials. It’s hard to explain.
The fuss about the multi-generational workforce is just an experimental perspective in which we have split categories in half and caused some numbers to pop more than others. In a few years the population born after 1995, Generation Z, will start finishing their master’s degrees or get their full credentials in the trades. For a brief moment, in 2020, there will be four generations in the workforce. Then the Baby Boomers will fully retire, leaving us with three generations in the workforce. Then, ten years after that, Generation X will retire. In 2040 there will be two generations in the workforce because we’re back to two, twenty-year cohorts straddling the 25-65 age range.
It is not how big these generations are that makes them important. It is whether they are in a 10-year or 20-year cohort, and whether the generation is fully or partially in the labour force.
Is it just me, or does this sound like we’re figuring out what colour of metal ear-tags to put onto our cattle? I think it would be far easier to talk to everyone as individual people, with their own perspectives and unique hopes and dreams. Isn’t that what the human rights legislation tells us? Isn’t that what compassionate leadership is all about?
Isn’t that what we have all learned from one another as colleagues and friends?