Boomers vs. Millennials: More early shots in the generational war

Are the older boomers or the younger millennials facing a tougher time in today’s melted-down workplace?

Matthew Philips, in a piece for Business Week (link here), sees both sides of the argument, noting that “in terms of who has it worse, old or young workers, it’s worth measuring the differences between the two age groups to see which is more in need of help.” He assesses the situation this way:


A recent report by the Government Accountability Office comes down on the side of easing the plight of older workers, more than 50 percent of whom have actively sought a job for more than half a year.

. . . In a recent OpEd for the New York Times, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research and Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute point out just how devastating unemployment can be for older workers, leading to significantly higher rates of death and illness. Also, once they lose a job, older workers have a much harder time getting back into the workforce.


Yet there’s evidence that the real jobs crisis is taking place a generation or two down the food chain. Unemployment rates for young Americans are significantly higher. . . . Not only are young people coming out of college with an increasingly heavy burden of student loan debt; they’re coming into a job market where they’re less likely to earn enough money to pay that off in a reasonable time.

That has far-reaching consequences. Today’s young workers are likely to have lower earning . . . potential over their careers, and their inability to pay off their student debt will keep them from buying homes and cars and a whole lot of other stuff that helps juice the economy.

Commencement season

Around the country, newly-minted graduates are taking their bows at Commencement ceremonies and entering the workforce. As an educator, I am ever aware of the difficult job market they confront. Joseph Kahn, writing for the Boston Globe (link here), captured the challenges faced by many:

Those not drowning financially are often treading water at best, according to surveys like the one released last month by WSL/Strategic Retail, a consulting firm that tracks shopping and retail trends.

Millennials now represent “the highest percentage of Americans lacking enough money to meet their basic needs,” outdistancing Gen X-ers and baby boomers in that dubious regard, according to the survey.

Burdened by $1 trillion in college debt, millennials seek the lowest price on most of their purchased items (80 percent say), shop for lower-priced brands whenever possible (60 percent), and do much of their bargain hunting online (57 percent), the WSL survey found.

. . . Facing them is “a perfect storm of a weak job market and the fact that those who do have jobs have seen minimal pay increases,” says WSL president Candace Corlett. Unlike previous generations, she adds, young adults are starting out their professional lives by piecing together part-time and temp jobs, or freelancing for low pay. Full-time jobs with benefits? Not many.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece for Perspectives on Work (link here) titled “The Looming 21st Century Generation Gap: Economic Challenges Facing Younger Workers.” I wouldn’t change a word of the opening paragraph:

Younger adults preparing to enter today’s workforce face a confluence of economic challenges unknown to many of their predecessors. These include rising student loan debt, barriers and higher thresholds to entry-level jobs, reduced wages and benefits, and heavier responsibilities for funding their own retirements and those of preceding generations. Many of these concerns were in play before the recession, but the economic meltdown has intensified all of them. Although the exact mix of these factors remains speculative, potentially we face a long period of generational strife that will play out in our workplaces, boardrooms, and legislatures.


Nevertheless, as a tail-end Baby Boomer, I fully comprehend the challenges and fears of a generation that has weathered the Great Recession during a time when our earning capacities are supposed to be at their peaks.

Many workers in their 40s and beyond have paid a heavy price during these past five years. At some employers, layoffs have targeted more experienced (and expensive) employees. And the older one gets, the more difficult it becomes to obtain a comparable position. Wages and salaries have flatlined, and pay cuts and freezes have become the norm.

In addition, quiet but devastating forms of age discrimination confront many workers who attempt to rebound from a layoff or to switch careers. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits age discrimination against individuals 40 and over, but proving such claims is extremely difficult.

The economic consequences of the meltdown on older workers are significant, especially in terms of retirement savings and planning. But the oft-neglected psychological impacts have exacted a heavy toll as well, ranging from the stress caused by uncertainty about job security to outright despair, desperation, and depression over a job loss.

Are we all in this together?

Call it a wash.

In any event, I foresee a lot of generational strife in the years to come. Boomers, concerned about economic security during their later years and (in some cases, at least) fueled by expectations of maintaining certain standards of living, will exercise their clout in boardrooms and legislatures. Millennials, many of whom are burdened by enormous student debt as they sail straight into a bad job market, will not want to pay extra levies to fund the retirements of generations preceding them.

I firmly believe that this scenario will get worse, perhaps substantially so, before it possibly gets better. The latter will require a fundamental revisiting of how we live, spend, and consume.


Graphic courtesy of Free Clip Art Now.

9 responses

  1. Some female friends and I often say that, the more energy the powers that be get us to spend worrying about the size of our backsides, the less time/energy we have to worry about the size of our rights/paychecks/roles in the world/etc. Why do I sense the same dynamic going on here?

    Yes, it certainly IS a good thing to study in detail the obstacles facing different generations of workers, because the obstacles ARE different depending on what generation you’re in. What goes unsaid in that framing, however, is that the whole reason there isn’t enough to go around for most people in both cohorts is that a very select few have warped the playing field to skim an inordinate amount of profit and power for themselves, leaving the majority of millenials and boomers to turn on each other for whatever scraps are left.

  2. This inter-general perspective makes me feel a little better about having been bullied out of the workforce long before I intended. At least my student loans and mortgage were paid off before I had to accept a substantially reduced standard of living…and left an open position (unfortunately in a toxic workplace) for a younger generation ( less experienced, more “educated”, less expensive) worker. Seems we all lose,

  3. Kachina is right when she says “we all lose” – I think that the generational conflicts are over rated compared with the oppression of all working people by the 1%. Jobs are very hard to get and to keep jobs, employees are forced to face incredibly bad treatment. Additionally, it is not just the young who face loss of benefits; it’s all workers. Employers have created a no win job market. Some of us are very fortunate in having defined pensions and health care programs; most are not. I think that is where we need to put our efforts, against employers who don’t see us as human beings deserving of dignity!

  4. If you’re a tail end boomer, did you enter the workplace at a low, like I did, when no one wanted a “college kid with no experience who thinks the world owes him life on a silver platter?” And now here we are on the unwanted side of 40. Seems like we need a working model that values everyone and not just those 30-40. You can’t pay off student loans, live, and save for retirement all in a decade! The economy depends on people working for more and more years while business redefines the desirable age of a new hire to a shorter and shorter time span.

    • I entered the workforce in the early 80s with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and as much as I prize my liberal arts education to this day, it wasn’t exactly busting open doors in the midst of a horrible economy. I’d like to think that I would’ve made out okay without more, but I know it would have been a challenge.

      I entered the job market agsin in the mid-80s, only now armed with a law degree from a well-regarded law school. Even though the economy was still not performing well, I had many more options. It put me on a different trajectory.

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  6. I agree with the gist of the comments here that the politically and economically powerful have created a divide-and-conquer dynamic. But…it’s not the whole of the problem…and at the risk of putting off some folks I’ll assess responsibility on the Boomers for a chunk of this.

    And yes, that includes liberals who got so caught up in social and cultural issues that they forgot about bread and butter economic and labor ones.

    I also fault liberal Boomers as a whole for not building cross generational lines, instead centering on issues primarily affecting their own age cohort. For example, with some exceptions they watched silently as the cost of college skyrocketed and loans supplanted grants as the primary form of financial aid, leaving today’s students carrying debt loads unimaginable a few decades ago.

    • That pretty well sums up my biggest regret about having challenged the status quo in a toxic workplace. I left my children in a position where I was not able to afford to financially support them in continuing their educations as I had lead them to believe they could count on. I am guilty of misleading and compromising the futures of my children. They either incur debts we had never intended or elect to limit/postpone their educational aspirations. I sacrificed my own children for my attachment to other values and ideals. What kind of a parent does that?

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