Pretty Soon, Old People Will Have All the Jobs

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Dan Resendes, Chief Consulting Officer at the Barrett Group

The U.S. workforce isn’t expected to age particularly well over the next decade. Though much ado has been made over the millennial generation sweeping into the labor market and supplanting both those in Generation X and baby boomers as the largest active age demographic in the domestic workforce, the average U.S. employee is still getting older, and what that means for the future of American employment is complicated.

The Pew Research Center earlier this year estimated the labor force held nearly 54 million millennials, or individuals who in 2015 were between the ages of 18 and 34 years old. That number for the first time eclipsed the pool of workers from Generation X, or those between 35 and 50 years old. Millennials were also expected to unseat baby boomers as the largest living generation in the general population at some point before year’s end.

But while it would be easy to assume that millennials’ meteoric rise would naturally drag down the median age of American workers, that’s not exactly how the last several years have played out. It’s also not a trend that’s likely to crop up in the foreseeable future.

Back in 1996, the median age of U.S. employees was 38.3 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That metric climbed to 40.8 years old by 2006 and to 42.0 years by 2016. By 2026, the median age of U.S. workers is expected to be 42.3 years old.

So why is it that America’s workforce isn’t getting younger as millennials reach working age? Part of the reason is that a greater share of older Americans are bucking traditional retirement and staying in the labor force longer than has historically been the case. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of Americans at least 55 years old who were active in the civilian labor force ballooned by 47.1 percent, according to the BLS. And that number is expected to grow nearly 20 percent over the next 10 years.

“The labor force will continue to age, with the average annual growth rate of the 55-years-and-older group projected to be 1.8 percent, more than three times the rate of growth of the overall labor force,” a BLS report released earlier this month said. “The group’s share of the labor force is anticipated to increase from 21.7 percent in 2016 to nearly 25 percent in 2026.”

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