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Millennials, Gen Xers to baby boomers: Can you retire so I can get a job promotion?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/7/2019 Paul Davidson

There’s a multigenerational traffic jam on the upper rungs of America’s career ladder.

As more baby boomers put off retirement, millennials and Gen Xers are finding it harder to move up into middle- and higher-level jobs, according to a USA TODAY/LinkedIn survey and interviews with recruiters.

Partly as a result, many younger workers are job-hopping as they seek bigger titles and higher pay. That’s making it tougher for companies to hold onto promising employees and hurting their businesses in some cases, the survey shows.

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“This is the first time ever that five different generations are in America’s workforce at the same time, from Gen Z-ers up to baby boomers,” says LinkedIn career expert Blair Decembrele. “It’s no surprise that there are some growing pains.”

To be sure, boomers (age 54-74) bring knowledge and experienceto the workplace, and many companies are trying to coax them into staying on as they struggle to find workers amid unemployment that’s at a 50-year low. Yet their prevalence in the labor force is tamping down the economy’s overall productivity, according to a study by Moody's Analytics. That's likely because of their reluctance to adopt new technology, the study says. .

Forty-one percent of millennials — and 30% of all adults  — said they’ve found it difficult to move up in their fields because boomers are waiting longer to retire, according to a USA TODAY/LinkedIn survey of 1,019 working professionals in September.

“That’s what I’m hearing a lot,” says Jeanne Branthover, co-head and managing partner of executive search firm DHR International’s New York office. Job seekers “are happy with the company but they’re being blocked by the person above them."

Related video: The new phrase in the social media world to describe older people (provided by KCTV Kansas City)

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Nearly a quarter of workers surveyed by USA TODAY/LinkedIn changed jobs in the last 12 months and 30% are planning to do so in the next year. A survey by Jobvite, a recruiting site, found that 61% of employees rank career growth opportunities as the top factor when seeking a new job.

Lauren Jablonski, 36, of Franklin Square, New York, worked as a substitute teacher and teacher’s aide at a Long Island elementary school for a couple of years. Although she has a Master’s in education, she couldn’t get promoted because teachers in their 50s with tenure had no plans to retire.

“It was extremely frustrating when you get to work every day and you’re giving it your all and you still can’t get to that next level,” Jablonski says. She left teaching several years ago and since has worked as a marketing manager, editor and martial arts instructor.

Silvia Fabela, 35, who lives in Washington D.C., loved her two jobs promoting workers’ rights at unions for nine years. She left to work at a nonprofit a couple of years ago to broaden her experience, but also because there was limited opportunity for a promotion at the unions over the longer term, though she’s open to returning to the field at some point. The median age of workers at labor union offices is 51.4, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Noting that millennials (ages 24-38) get blamed for not spending more to bolster the economy, she says, “We’re not getting promoted and not making enough money.”

Boomers living, working longer

Workers age 55 and over have comprised an eye-popping 56% of all job gains so far this year, with those 65 and over making up the lion’s share of that figure, according to BLS. In October, 20.4% of Americans 65 and older were working or looking for jobs, up from 12.4% in 1999 and the largest portion since 1961. While some of those were returning to the workforce after hanging it up, many simply have put off retirement, says Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resiliency for AARP, a nonprofit that lobbies for the interests of middle-aged and elderly people.

More than half of all U.S. workers plan to work past 65 or not retire at all, according to a survey last year by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

Boomers can toil longer because they’re healthier and need to finance longer lifespans, Weinstock says. Many saw their 401(k) investments hammered by the Great Recession of 2007-09 or had to take lower-paying jobs after getting laid off.

Millennials, meanwhile, “have very high expectations” for how quickly they’ll get promoted," says Brad Harrington, head of the Boston College Center for Work and Family. “Those two things are colliding — a short time horizon for millennials and long lives for baby boomers."

Marc LeVine, 63, of Freehold, New Jersey, depleted his savings and 401(k) accounts when sales at his staffing business plummeted during the recession. When he finally got a full-time job in 2014, the salary was 36% lower than his prior income.

Besides replenishing his nest egg, “I enjoy what I do. I don’t know what I would do being retired,” says LeVine, who is now a recruiter for a company that makes industrial control systems.

LeVine says he plans to work well into his 70s and doesn’t feel guilty about taking up a spot that might otherwise be filled by a millennial or Gen Xer (ages 39-53). “We all have to make a living,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Want our jobs? You’ll have to beat us at our game!”

Companies such as Brooks Brothers value long-serving employees and are accommodating them with flexible schedules as they struggle to find qualified job candidates.

“Older workers have wisdom to bring to the table,” says Steve Hatfield, global future of work leader for consulting firm Deloitte.

And Weinstock of AARP says boomers have the “soft skills” employers are seeking. “They’re calm under pressure. They’re problem solvers. They listen better.”

Are boomers hurting the economy?

Yet a Moody’s study this year found that older workers are broadly hurting productivity, or output per labor hour, and thus the economy. Based on data from payroll processor ADP, Moody’s found that from 2013 to 2016, the greater a company’s share of workers 65 and older, the lower its wages and wage growth. Since pay increases are closely correlated with productivity growth, Moody’s concluded that older workforces curtail productivity increases. That’s likely because boomers are more resistant to productivity-enhancing technology, the report said.

Such technology includes Slack, the work collaboration tool, artificial intelligence and accounting software, says Ian Siegel, CEO of ZipRecruiter, a top job site. The effects may be more pronounced if older workers are managers in charge of ordering technology, says Moody’s Chief Economist Mark Zandi.

A study by Upwork, the online freelancing platform, found that millennial and Gen Z managers are more than twice as likely as boomers to invest in technology to support a remote workforce.

“Boomers are limiting the ability of millennials and Gen Xers to achieve their (and the economy’s) potential,” Zandi says. Noting that productivity has increased an average 1% a year since the recession, down from 2% the prior decade, Zandi estimates the aging workforce can be blamed for about half the decline.

Some experts are skeptical that boomers are blocking the ascent of millennials. A Stanford University study found that increasing the number of older workers doesn’t hurt the employment or wages of younger people. Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist of Glassdoor, says younger workers may be stymied by boomers at their offices but can find opportunities at other firms. And Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School, says only about a third of openings are filled internally anyway, down from about 90% in the 1970s.

Boomers, millennials, side by side

Experts say a multi-generational workforce can boost productivity if properly leveraged. Some companies are splitting C-suite jobs in two, giving younger employees some of the duties in a sort of half-step promotion so they won't leave, Branthover says.

Others have started mentoring programs that encourage boomers to impart their knowledge to younger workers while millennials show older workers how to use new technology, says Julia Kennedy, executive vice president of the Center for Talent Innovation. Millennials who learn skills from higher-level boomers that enhance their value and help them eventually get promoted are “less likely to resent that person” and more willing to stay on, Kennedy says.

A growing number of firms are also jettisoning or minimizing traditional corporate hierarchies in favor of horizontal tracks that encourage employees to work in teams and rotate through different roles, says Hatfield of Deloitte. Eventually, those workers, armed with more diverse skills, can choose among various career ladders.

Virginia-based Newport News Shipbuilding, which makes nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the Navy, is using both strategies to get the most out of a workforce of 25,000, 42% of whom are millennials; 25%, boomers; and 24% Gen Xers. A couple of years ago, the company switched from paper blueprints to digital ones on tablets. Some boomers struggled with the new system and started pairing up with tech-savvy millennials.

The company, a unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries, formalized the mentoring program and encouraged boomers to pass along their decades of knowledge to younger colleagues.

“Older workers have been reinvigorated,” says Susan Jacobs, company vice president of human resources. “And the young people are learning faster.” 

The shipbuilder also plucks some veteran managers from front-line positions to chronicle their know-how for less experienced workers through videos or papers, opening up those jobs for millennials and Gen Xers. And it allows white-collar workers to rotate among departments such as accounting, design and human resources, preparing them for higher-level spots.

The share of workers leaving the company has fallen from 9.1% in 2018 to an annual rate of 6.3% so far this year.

“We’re going to need (younger workers) to move into leadership roles,” Jacobs says.

USA TODAY and LinkedIn have collaborated on a survey that has uncovered trends in hiring, managing and promoting U.S. employees. This story is the second in a series. The first published on Oct. 20.

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