The Boomer Blockade: How One Generation Reshaped the Workforce and Left Everyone Behind

The baby boom led to the largest shift in the demographics of the modern workforce. As baby boomers entered the workforce it coincided with steady and prosperous economic growth and a dearth of older workers to compete with as they moved through the ranks. They were promoted to the senior ranks earlier than previous generations and have stayed well into their sixties, enabling them to continue to amass wealth in a way that their parents did not. Millennials and Gen Xers have entered the workforce amid lower rates of growth and with less opportunities due to such a large percentage of older workers. We will need to reimagine the narratives of success at work that no longer align with what the boomers experienced throughout their careers.

Millenials and Gen Xers are hitting a wall at work. 

Thirty years ago they would have been promoted, perhaps even before they were ready. But now they are told that they need to wait their time. 

They were raised with the belief that if they worked hard, found a good job and put in their time, it would pay off. Not just financially, but with the status of having senior level roles and responsibilities. 

Instead, many are stuck in an endless lateral career loop, moving from position to position, clinging to a fictional story of a “career trajectory” and hoping to find an opening. All while trying to convince the people who have the coveted senior positions that they are not in fact “job hoppers.” Many are able to negotiate good raises with their new jobs, but find that the work they do today is eerily similar to the work they were doing a few years after they graduated. 

This stagnation is leading many to put off buying houses, committing to long-term partners, or investing in their communities. References to “burnout” are skyrocketing as people are feeling disconnected from their work at a time when work is more central to life than it was for previous generations.

Our modern institutions and the jobs and career paths associated with them are the central pillar of a narrative about what success was and should be in modern society.

However, people have lost faith in this narrative. The erosion of trust in company loyalty is certainty to blame, but I believe there is a deeper and more convincing explanation which I am tentatively calling the “boomer blockade.”

This explanation is the combination of three trends which together have had a profound effect on the modern workforce: 

  1. A baby boomer demographic that emerge into a healthy and growing workforce in the 1980’s and 1990’s and were able to succeed through high rates of growth and limited competition from older members of the workforce for good jobs
  2. A baby-boomer demographic that is choosing to stay in the workforce longer than previous generations
  3. A resulting emergence of bad jobs and pseudo career paths due to lower rates of organic growth throughout the economy and boomers deciding to work later in their careers

This blockade is both a literal blockade, stopping people from reaching the senior-most levels of organizations and institutions, and a figurative blockade, holding people back from finding meaning from new narratives and myths of success in life and at work.

Trend #1 —Boomers reshape the working world

Before we dive in, this is not a hit piece on the baby boomer generation. I’m not here to go “okay, boomer,” but instead I’m genuinely curious about how a single generation was able to succeed so remarkably while following generations, most notably Gen X and Millennials, have failed to follow in their footsteps.

Let’s first start with the demographics. The story starts with a literal “baby boom” that coincided with the end of World War II.

Average children per woman

Using cohort data from the BLS, we can see how the baby boomer generation has continually reshaped the workforce. By1980 we see their effect in full force, leading to a large influx of workers under 34 years old. 

Workforce percentage by decade

We can see this more clearly if we roughly code each of the generations by color. As they move through the workforce, we see the slope of the age demographics shift. 

Workforce percentage by decade

For the first time in the last 60 years, the 55+ cohort is bigger than any other ten year age cohort. 

For millennials and gen X workers in today’s workforce, it is common to have colleagues, managers and executives who are much older than you. When the baby boomers were at the height of their early working career it was less common and from 1979 to 1999 when the median baby boomer was 24 to 44 years old, the percentage of workers under 45 never dipped below 60% of the workforce

Distribution of labor force over the last sixty years showing that boomers dominated the workforce during peak earning years

In addition to this massive opportunity to progress in the workforce, the boomer generation was backed by the tailwind of economic growth, which in the 1980’s and 1990s were consistently above 3% annualized growth, something that has not happened since.

GDP growth rates

While this may not seem to be a big deal, lets look at an example of how a small shift in a growth rate can lead to a dramatic increase, using a $100,000 investment over a twenty year period with those same growth rates.

Annual growth rates

Except instead of money, the thing being created were jobs.

To recap: The boomers entered the workforce during the last consistent period of 3%+ economic growth and had limited competition for jobs during the prime working years of their career. 

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Trend #2 —The boomers reached power at younger ages and then have stayed in power

A fascinating study was done by Professors Cappelli and Hamori comparing executives of the Fortune 100 in 1980 to their peers in 2001 which they shared in an article in “The New Road to the Top” in HBR.

They found that from 1980 to 2001, the average age of executives dropped four years from 56 years old to 52 years old. In addition, they found that these executives were reaching the top faster than in 1980:

The journey from first job to executive suite is shorter — by four years, on average — than it was a generation ago, and it involves fewer stops along the way. Though executives stay on each rung nearly as long as they used to, today’s career ladder seems to have fewer rungs, and they’re spaced farther apart. That is, the average promotion entails a greater leap in responsibility. This trend is consistent with the widespread perception that corporate hierarchies are flattening.

Average time to the top in early 2000s
Credit: HBS

Moving into the 2000’s the average of of F100 corporate executuve was 52, meaning a baby boomer born in 1949. They reached the top faster than previous generations and with less jobs to get there. 

So did the trend of younger company leaders continue?

Short answer? No. 

Crist Kolder recently shared this incredible chart:

Average CEO age at hire

This is a profound trend. The average age of incoming CEOs for S&P 500 companies has increased about 14 years over the last 14 years.

From 1980 to 2001 the average age of a CEO dropped four years and then from 2005 to 2019 the averare incoming age of new CEOs increased 14 years!

This means that the average birth year of a CEO has not budged since 2005. The best predictor of becoming a CEO of our most successful modern institutions? 

Being a baby boomer.

Let’s reconfigure the graph to make this clear. Using the raw data, we can graph instead the average birth year of an incoming CEO:

Average age of incoming CEOs adjusted to show generations baby boomer versus gen x

In Academia, there has been a similar dramatic jump in age of senior leaders. The American Council of Education shows that the share of 60+ University Presidents increased from 30% to almost 60% in 15 years

College presidents by age over time.  College presidents are getting older over time.

The baby boomer generation not only reached the executive levels earlier than other generations, they have also added another entire chapter to their careers. 

To recap: In addition to entering the workforce during a very advantageous time, they have also redefined what it means to work, pushing their tenures well beyond previous generations, staying in power and holding back the following generations from reaching senior roles at the ages they did in their own careers.

Trend #3— Atomization of work and increase of pseudo career paths

In 1967, HBR shared a reflection on middle managers and their career paths:

…most men, attainment of executive rank coincides with the onset of middle age, that vast gulf which begins about 35 and endures until a man has come to terms with himself and his human fate (for no man matures until he has done so).

Putting aside the awkward sexism and enlightenment musings, its shocking to realize that in the late 1960s 35 years old was once considered “middle age” and a reasonable time to be promoted executive of a company.

As we saw earlier, the baby boomers didn’t reach executive positions until their early fifties, but they had already chipped a few years away from their predecessors. 

However, as they became the executives, they were overseeing organizations that were about to dip below 2% annual growth and because they were just kicking off another chapter of their career, the positions that were available to them were not available to Generation X and more recently, millennials.

However, the underlying work beliefs, that working hard, putting in your time and then becoming successful was still deeply tied to many of our modern institutions. 

This is where the story gets interesting and I think might resonate with people trying to find a good path for themselves at work.

Over the past thirty years, there has been a consistent atomization of the workforce, turning many good jobs into bad jobs along with a proliferation of pseudo career paths for good jobs that hide the fact that there just aren’t that many leadership and other jobs that one might paid with having “made it” to go around.

The atomization of work

In Academia, the atomization of work has been extensively covered as a shift from tenure-track roles to adjunct positions. Starting in 1975, tenure and tenure track roles shrunk from 45% to about a quarter of jobs today

Institutional staff employment status at universities over time

While Academia is an example of this happening in the professional world, it is also happening across the economy, especially with blue-collar work. 

Last year, the BLS quietly launched that they call the “Job Quality Index” which measures the ratio of good jobs to bad jobs. This is a simple ration of the percentage of jobs that pay above the average wage to the percentage of jobs that pay below the average wage.

In 1990, the proportion of good jobs to bad jobs was about 1:1. Another way to think about this is that there were about 90 “bad” jobs for every good job. Since 1990, for every 100 new jobs, 63 of them were of the low-wage,low-quality variety.

Breakdown of good jobs versus bad jobs - Job Quality Index

What’s behind this trend? 

A big driver is the shift away from goods-producing work and a shift towards lower-wage service jobs with less predictable hours such as cashiers, home-health workers and retail workers.

These are not only lower-wage jobs, but often are contract or part-time jobs with less hours. Many want to work more hours, but can’t.

Average hours worked in the private sector

Emergence Of pseudo career paths

Many people in the working world buy into the idea of a career. This is an idea built around the belief that you should always be progressing, learning and growing.

Not able to deliver on some of the opportunities for literal growth, many institutions have created pseudo career paths.

These are paths that don’t give you a real opportunity to move into a leadership role in your firm, but give you the appearance of progress. 

In law firms we see this with the emergence of the non-equity partner track or even the staff attorney path. 

Decreasing number of equity partners at Law firms

As the odds of being promoted to a real equity partner have diminished, it has coincided with added levels to the pyramid.

Law firm career paths

This has also happened in consulting firms. If you read the history of consulting firms, you realize that fifty years ago you were a consultant for a few years before being promoted to partner. Now the formal track looks like this:

Typical consulting career paths

In addition to this elongated standard path, consulting firms also have alternative paths in research and as “experts” that roughly look like this:

alternative career paths - slowed career trajectory

Although rare, neither end in partnership and many people in these roles stay at a certain level for years. In one of my non-consulting roles at a top consulting firms I was told that in my role I couldn’t get a raise or promotion for four years. And this was at a firm growing more than 10% per year. 

I left to another firm after two years. Keep moving or give up.

The proliferation of levels is a necessary step for organizations to keep talented gen Xers and millennials who be able to land senior positions as early in their career but were raised with the belief that they need to have a steady career trajectory nonetheless. 

We could be more honest about the fact that growth has slowed, boomers are staying at work longer, and the myth of the American dream, the one that says anyone who works hard would be taken care of is probably not something that works for most people anymore.

But that would be hard.

Wealth is not shifting to the next generation

The boomers were able to rise to senior-level positions at the peak of their careers and were able to succeed in prosperous times. They’ve continued to lead these organizations well into their sixties. This has enabled them to continue to built wealth well into old age.

If you compare the boomers to the silent generations, the silent generation’s share of wealth shrunk 26% from a median cohort age of 54 to 63 years old. During the same comparable period, the baby boomers increased their share of wealth by 5%. The baby boomers are growing their share of the pie into their sixties.

Distribution of wealth by median cohort age from the federal reserve in 2019 - millennials, boomers, gen x and silent

I’m not against anyone amassing wealth, but something has clearly changed. If boomers are increasing their share of wealth, it is clearly at the expense of the following generations. If they aren’t going to give up their positions in the workplace, I’m not sure when this shift will finally happen.

I’ve stumbled on this explanation because I’ve been mystified by a paradox in the workplace, especially within the “creative class” as Richard Florida calls them. Many knowledge workers are making good money, but are frustrated and burning out at increasing rates. At the same time, most people would agree that the modern workplace is a much better place to spend time than it was thirty years ago. I plot the paradox like this:

Expectations versus reality of work

I believe that the “boomer blockade” might be the best explanation of the frustration and disconnection that people are experiencing. 

They don’t just want to get paid. They also want the associated status and responsibility that comes with a leading position in our modern institutions.

We can turn to Congress to see proof of this hunger bubbling beneath the surface. With Trump being elected in 2016, peoples beliefs in any sort of career path for a politician have evaporated. 

In the 2019 congressional elections, the average age of Congress dropped 10 years due to a wave of elected Millennials. 

People want to lead if given the chance.

For many of our modern institutions, it might be a good thing that older leaders are staying in the workforce longer. Companies are more complex than ever and their experience probably does matter.

But if we are going to adjust to this new paradigm, we’ll need new narratives of what success means for the generations held back by the boomer blockade. 

Surely its not going to be muddling along as a senior manager for 15 years.

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About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

1 thought on “The Boomer Blockade: How One Generation Reshaped the Workforce and Left Everyone Behind”

  1. Hi, I am one of those boomers staying too long in the job. For younger people it is not imaginable how we had to fight because we were too many for too few good jobs. Now we are there – and stay. There are as many reasons as there are boomers. However many form my generation are fed up or bored or have a burn-out. 50 plusses do never again find a good job once they are out from Asia to Europe to the US! The problem is that our society does not offer an alternative like for instance a smooth downgrading and handing over to young people without unemployment and loss of meaning. We have to bild career paths for older people allowing younger to grow quickly into their positions. What do you think companies and 50 plusses should do?

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