There Is a Much Larger Problem Than the Great Resignation. No One Wants to Talk About It.
The United States likes to talk about problems. Well, ones we have solutions for, anyway. Others we tend to willfully ignore. This latter strategy is typically accomplished by either
a.) pretending the problem isn’t happening at all or
b.) dismissing it as one of little importance. It’s the “American Way” ™.
Look at all the bubbles in our current economy or the crippling national debt, for example.
This time, though, we’ve really outdone ourselves in terms of mental gymnastics. We’ve been managing to relentlessly cover the “Great Resignation,” wage growth, and employment disruptions from the pandemic while ignoring a larger problem in that field. Our workforce is old. Not “a few years older than it likely should be” old, but dangerously old.
This speaks to certain generational trends (most of them having to do with my delightful cohorts here in Gen Y), but also to a looming catastrophe if we don’t course-correct sometime soon. So how did we get here? Why is it so significant? Let’s look.
I hate to have to bring math into an article (in any form), but it’s necessary here. The median age in the United States is currently 38.1 years old — a number that reflects a consistent rise in recent years, but not too terrible. That number has been moving up about .15 per year as our largest generation, the oft-discussed boomers, age.
When looking at our workforce figures, we need to keep that figure in mind. The population under 16 (not working) and population over 65 (more likely to be retired) are roughly equivalent right now, which means our workforce age should hew pretty close to our overall median age. In other words, for every child not dragging the workforce age down, there should be a retiree not dragging the workforce age up.
In our professions, then, we would expect to see a median age of around 38. Naturally, that’s not the case, specifically when you get into some of the trades or other professions that aren’t necessarily glamorous. Still, these jobs are essential to our everyday lives. We should not ignore them.
So how far off are they? Well, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’ve got some wide discrepancies. Looking at just a few:
· Real estate agents: 49.1 years old
· Automotive mechanics: 47.4 years old
· Facilities managers: 50.1 years old
· Bus/Shuttle drivers: 55.6 years old
· Housekeeping/Janitorial: 50.1 years old
· Home health aides: 47.2 years old
· Electrical trades: 46.8 years old
Yikes. There were plenty of professions even older than that, but I picked these for a reason — there’s little barrier to entry. You don’t need a $200,000 piece of paper, and they’re located across the country. You don’t need to live in a growing metropolitan area to have any of these jobs. In other words, based on ease of access, they should be younger. But they’re not.
The least productive generation
That brings us to a natural question: Why? Yes, the whole population is aging, but those professions are still 10+ years older than the median age in the country. Something is up. And it’s generational.
I don’t like to blame millennials universally as many others do. Make no mistake, I loathe my generation, but I think a lot of what they turned out to be was outside of their control. The first years of Gen Y were hit with the dot-com burst as they entered the workforce, the Great Recession in their later 20s, and now a global pandemic when they were finally getting everything together. Not ideal economic events for the entire first half of life.
But that’s not the problem. No, instead, Gen Y was the first generation to be universally told that they would need college to succeed. Even I got that speech frequently, and I was an underperforming (and often absent) student in a mediocre school. I can only imagine how heavy it was indoctrinated in other districts.
Well, even if it wasn’t implicitly stated, adolescents could get the gist of what was being said: No college means no college-required jobs, which means failure. The obvious conclusion is that non-college careers are failures.
This is simultaneously false, condescending, and ridiculous, but it’s also how a lot of this generation was brought up. I remember towards the end of high school, I was kicking around the idea of taking some certificate courses in construction management and exploring those trades a bit. My teachers and classmates looked at me like I just publicly threatened suicide. It was ridiculous. For the record, I’ve gone on to finance and supervise the funding and progress of large construction projects across the U.S.
So, what did we get? A generation that went to college in larger numbers than ever before, regardless of whether it appealed to them, made financial sense, or even made practical sense for the individual. If you were of the means or opportunity to go, you went. Period. A few like myself didn’t, but we were rare.
Now once you’ve blown $100,000 or more on your education, it’s only natural to feel that you shouldn’t have to work a “manual” job. I mean, what was all this for then, right? Especially since grade inflation made everyone a 3.2+ GPA student. So they swarmed the white-collar fields, drove salaries down, and realized that those jobs sucked too. Attached to your phone long after work was over, responding to whatever imaginary crisis needs resolution. What a deal. Meanwhile, the vital jobs went unattended.
Why it matters
Mechanics, electricians, stonemasons, general laborers: these are all trades that allow the world to keep on humming. We can’t rely on the older half of Gen X and the younger half of the boomers to build everything for everyone in perpetuity. Yet we seem content to.
Producing something and making a living wage for yourself or your family used to be an item of pride for many. Now, if our primary careers flame out, we instead look for a permanent side-hustle or join the “creator” economy.
There’s some value there for society, sure, but not everyone can just live the dream forever. This whole trend of “influencing” is a bit ridiculous too, but more a byproduct of how our society is today than anything else. Point is, at the peak of their professional careers, fewer millennials are in the real workforce than any other generation before them.
It may work very well for some individuals, but 1,000 spokes going in opposite directions doesn’t make a wheel. It makes a tangled mess of alloy on the floor. This is sometimes referred to as “the current labor market”.
Funny thing is, I think my generation’s dismal failure at participating in society is going to course-correct this disaster. Or, at least, I hope it will. A lot of my friends went to work in trades. They’re universally doing better than the white-collar college graduates I know. Higher incomes (due to excessive demand) and no debt. The pendulum may be swinging back. It needs to, particularly before the next wave of retirements leaves us in an even greater shortage of skilled labor that will be more difficult to claw out of.
There’s been a good bit of coverage on Gen Z and their increasing disillusionment with college — not seeing it as a good value, as it were. They’ve also been shown to be more financially savvy and involved than any other generation at their age. Considering their financial acumen, I’d be surprised if a few didn’t notice the average salary for an electrician is now higher than the average for a staff accountant.
Our current workforce needs an immediate infusion of young, skilled talent before we face such labor shortages that projects become impossible. Gen Z may be the answer. The ship has sailed on its predecessors.
Postscript: I do not believe this is the only problem in the labor market, just one. I’ve covered hiring standards here, technology and automation here, declining population growth here, and the relentless pressure on the working/middle class here and here. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to fit our problems into one article.
Food for thought! Article by Peter Shanosky first posted here: