The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s a millennial workforce now

Commuters walk through a corridor in the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York in 2019. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
3 min

I’ll reveal my biases at the outset: Having written a book about the decline of the baby boom and the generational shift that has triggered, I tend to pay more attention to generational boundaries than is often useful. This is in part because those boundaries are, in most cases, gauzy. One reason you might not know if you’re a millennial or Generation X is that there isn’t actually a hard and fast line between those groups.

But sometimes the distinction can be useful, as when considering how the American economy is being reshaped by the transition away from the baby boom. What a decade ago was a workforce dominated by members of the baby boom is now one in which workers are most commonly members of the millennial generation — at least as defined by Pew Research Center.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups American adults into three categories. The first is those who are currently employed. The second is those who are not employed but are seeking work — the group that constitutes the unemployed. Finally, there’s the group that’s not in the labor force, people who are too young to be looking for work or too old. Think college students and retirees.

Since the BLS only breaks out groups into five-year chunks, we can’t segment everyone precisely into their generational groups. But we can bucket them generally, delineating the occupational status of members of the millennial, Gen X and boomer generations both last month and 11 years ago — and identifying the same divides for those who fall into age groups that overlap two generations.

The distribution looks like this for November 2011 and November 2022. Each row is scaled vertically to represent the percentage of the total population that falls into that generational category. In other words, in the November 2011 chart, there are a lot more millennials than people who fall into the millennial-Gen X overlap group — so the millennial row is much taller.

First, compare the millennial and boomer rows in 2011. They’re quite similar; each group made up about a quarter of the total population. But a much larger percentage of baby boomers were in the labor force (meaning employed or unemployed) and a larger percentage was actually working.

Now look at the same two groups in 2022. Now, most boomers are out of the workforce — and most millennials are in it.

If we look at the minimum and maximum percentage of the workforce that belongs to each generational group (the minimum being only those in the nonoverlapping age groups and the maximum including both the older and younger overlapping groups), we see how the composition of the workforce has shifted since 2011.

This isn’t surprising, of course. The youngest boomers are now almost 60; most of them are at retirement age or older. Between 13 percent and 23 percent of the adult population tracked by the BLS is now a boomer who is out of the workforce, compared with 7.5 and 13 percent in 2011.

As I noted earlier this year, this is likely to be contributing to the low labor-force participation rates the economy is still seeing. After all, America is older than it has ever been, meaning that a larger chunk of the population is both adult and done with working.

For today, though, the story is different. For all of the lazy disparagement of millennials as workers, they are far more the American workforce today than are members of the baby boom.