Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

There are many who suggest that there is a generational divide in the workplace. Last year, Time ran a story calling out millennials as a generation of lazy, entitled narcissists.  (In fairness, the article also said this generation could be the next “Great Generation.”) Meanwhile, millennials are consistently frustrated at the inability of their senior colleagues to work and communicate effectively using technologies that are second nature to the younger crowd.

While there may be much back and forth over the value of contributions being made by different generations in the work place, one thing is certain:  when it comes to post-recession job recovery, baby boomers are outpacing millennials, and this poses some challenges.

A recent CareerBuilder article  found that, following the Great Recession, boomers have gained 1.9 million jobs, while millennials have gained only 110,000 jobs. Nationwide, boomer employment is outstripping millennials and other generations in STEM fields, which have become critically important to economic recovery, especially in Michigan.

In Southeast Michigan, in the last 10 years, employment for youth ages 14-24 fell by 24.5 percent (85,400 jobs) while employment for older workers age 55+ climbed 25.2 percent (76,100) — an almost perfect inverse relationship. In fact, older workers compose the only age group that saw an employment increase during the last recession.

Why are boomers doing so well relative to their younger counterparts?  One reason is experience.  Employers are looking for skilled workers who can be more productive and understand how to navigate the workplace. Another reason is flexibility and affordability.  During the recession, many older workers “retired” or changed jobs with severance, allowing (or requiring) them to take another position with relatively lower pay.  This meant employers could hire highly skilled and experienced workers at relatively little cost, while employees sometimes received two incomes, one from retirement/severance, and another from their new job.   A third reason could be that that millennials are simply misunderstood by employers, many of whom are boomers themselves.  Many contend that millennials do not want to work hard, have poor work ethic, lack loyalty, and are more interested in play than pay, but research tends to debunk these stereotypes.

Regardless, when it comes to the hiring game, the bottom line is that there is a disproportionate share of boomers in the workplace, and young people continue to struggle to find relevant work experience.   In the United States, there are 10,000 new baby boomers who reach retirement age every day. This will be the case every day for the next 17 years. In Southeast Michigan, this translates to roughly 158 people per day, or 58,000 people per year.

As older workers approach retirement, there will be insufficient numbers of skilled and ready younger workers who can adequately fill their shoes.  This is particularly true in STEM fields, where boomer talent is particularly present and valued.

With a large segment of the workforce reaching retirement age, millennials (and some of the generations preceding them) need to be prepared to take over.  Competitive firms will need to assess their workforce environment to attract these younger workers, especially the relatively few who are entering some of Southeast Michigan’s most in-demand fields, like information technology, advanced manufacturing (especially engineering, related technology, and design), and health care.  At the same time, the talent and employer community will need to find ways, like internships and apprenticeships, to help young workers gain earlier work experiences.

Ultimately, no one is winning the generational war in the workplace, and if anyone is hurt by it, it is businesses.  This threatens jobs and regional prosperity, two good reasons to mend the fences between boomers and millennials.

This blog post was prepared with research and content from Sarah Sebaly, Project Manager, Strategic Pathways, Workforce Intelligence Network.

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