COMMENTARY, PART 5: The Graying of the Workforce

Remember all the talk – hardly a decade ago – about Baby Boomers getting ready to retire in droves and leave the workplace looking like a ghost town – while taking all our skills, experience, wisdom, and personal networks with us?

            Don’t look now, but it didn’t happen.

            What’s more, not only didn’t we Boomers do that; it turns out we never intended to. Consider this: at the end of 2010, for the first time since employment statistics were kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1948), there were more workers over 65 in the American workplace than there were under 20. More seniors than teens.

            This is more than an interesting workplace issue; historically, it’s downright staggering. When social security began in 1935, Americans’ life expectancy was 60 for males and 64 for females. In other words, you weren’t expected to live beyond 65, much less work.

Look at us now.

One would think (as an aside) that with our expansive capability to gather and analyze data, we’d have had a better fix on what our workplace looks – and will look – like, no? This illustrates the difference between left-brain analysis and right-brain interpretation.

Here are some examples of what left-brain analysis reveals. People 65 and older in the labor force increased from 12.1 percent in 1990 to 16.1 percent in 2010; the Census Bureau projects a 67 percent increase in the 65+ population by 2040, when one in five Americans will be 65+; and many studies conclude that by 2019, workers 55 and older will comprise 25 percent of the workforce, and that workers 50 years and up will account for 35 percent.

            Now, I’ll raise you one: that number could be 40 percent, which brings up the need to think more intuitively. Projections on workplace demographics are statistical in nature and algorithmic in structure. They do not, however, take into account subjective factors like seniors loving their continued activity or fearing inactivity, like that famous “boomer work ethic,” or like concerns about outliving retirement savings.

            Sooner or later, one must get off the spreadsheets and simply ask, “Why? What’s going on here?” There are three answers, I believe. The first is tied to the very nature of the generation that was supposed to be retiring so fast. We just don’t want to. We like work and we like working.  

Second, in an economy top-heavy with white collar jobs (a turning point we reached in the second Eisenhower term, believe it or not), many boomers are in jobs that aren’t physically taxing, jobs they can perform into their eighties.

            And third, the government itself is pushing the envelope; full social security benefits now kick in at 66 – and that’s rising. Embedded in this is that our national approach to retirement compares unfavorably (to say the least) with those of European countries, Canada, and Japan, countries that enable retirement and support retirees.

            Put your left and right brains together, and you reach understanding, more often than not by looking at more than one stream of data in more than one way. For example, while the civilian labor force will have grown by 38.5 million from 1990 to 2020, 26.4 million of them will be 55 years or over, while the 16-24 age bracket will have shrunk by 4.2 million and the 25-54 (prime age) bracket will have increased slightly by 16.3 million. Fully 69 percent of the civilian labor force growth will come from the 55-and-up crowd – and the reason is easy to figure. While more workers are reaching 55, fewer in that bracket are retiring.

            Know when that jump-started? From 2000 to 2010, growth in the 55+ age bracket was a whopping, stunning, and very sudden 61 percent, while the decade earlier saw a 24 percent growth, and this one will finish at 38 percent. In other words, while no one was looking, Boomers plugged up the marketplace.

            The result is that the overall labor force will have increased by a factor of 1.31 from 1990 to 2020, but the 55+ category will have grown by a factor of 2.76. And in the larger context, the number of people 55 and older in the US in 2020 will be equal to the total population of the US 100 years earlier.

            These data point to another unprecedented certainty – and you heard it here first: that starting in as little as three years from now, we will have five generations in the workplace. Five! That’s Seniors, Boomers, Gen-X, Gen-Y, and (coming up quickly), Gen-V (see my commentary of May 5, as well as the entire series at

            But make no mistake: the workforce will be grayer than ever.

So, as I prepare to celebrate my 66th birthday next week – and collect my first Social Security check a month later – with grayer (and less) hair than I had when I began working, I ask you to look around. The workplace looks more like me because there are more of me than ever before (and, of course, less younger workers).

But cheer up, youngsters. This means I’ll keep paying into social security so you might still be able to collect when you retire – at about 100.

Career Coach Eli Amdur conducts workshops and one-on-one coaching in Job Search, Career Planning, Resumes, and Interviewing. Reach him at or 201-357-5844. Please visit and "like" him at