May 11, 2015

Millennials surpass Gen Xers as the largest generation in U.S. labor force

U.S. Labor Force by Generation, 1995-2015

More than one-in-three American workers today are Millennials (adults ages 18 to 34 in 2015), and this year they surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of the American workforce, according to new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Labor Force Composition by GenerationThis milestone occurred in the first quarter of 2015, as the 53.5 million-strong Millennial workforce has risen rapidly. The Millennial labor force had last year surpassed that of the Baby Boom, which has declined as Boomers retire.

Our new analysis of labor force estimates is based on the monthly Current Population Survey, which serves as the basis for the official unemployment rate and labor force counts announced by the federal government each month.

With its disproportionately large share of immigrants, and at an age of transition from college to the working world, the Millennial generation’s workforce is highly likely to grow even further in the near future.

First, immigration to the U.S. will continue to disproportionately enlarge the ranks of the Millennial labor force. Immigrants coming to the U.S. are disproportionately in their young working years. Relatively speaking, few immigrants come to the U.S. during childhood or during older adulthood. In the past five years, over half of newly arrived immigrant workers have been Millennials.

In addition, a significant chunk of the Millennial population are 18- to 24-year-olds. These are the years when school and college-going are often center-stage, and as a result, labor force participation is suppressed. As the youngest Millennials get older, more of them will be looking for or getting jobs. Just how many more is tough to know, but the behavior of the Gen X population provides some clues.

Millennials Are Now the Largest Labor ForceGeneration X’s labor force participation rate peaked in 2008 at 84%. In 1998, Gen Xers were roughly the same ages (18 to 33) as today’s Millennials, and that year, only 80% of the Gen X population was in the labor force. So we can assume that the Millennial labor force still has some room for growth in the years to come.

For Generation X (ages 35 to 50 in 2015), their place as the dominant generation within the labor force was very short-lived – just three years – and, on a chart, might even get missed, as they are sandwiched in between Boomers and Millennials. In 2012, the Gen X labor force (52.9 million) overtook the Baby Boom labor force to become the largest generation in the workforce, but that likely ended this year.

The Generations DefinedOne caveat is that it’s possible that the Gen X labor force might grow. Immigration will add some workers to the Gen X labor force. Also, labor force participation has been diminished due to the Great Recession and modest economic recovery. If the job market continues to improve in the post-recession era, some Gen Xers will likely return to the labor market in stronger numbers. At the same time, though, the Gen X labor force is aging. The oldest Gen Xer is now 50, and thus beginning to age out of the prime working years (25 to 54), and this might counteract any potential growth in the Gen X workforce.

It’s worth noting that the Millennial population as a whole (not just its workforce) is already projected to surpass that of Baby Boomers this year as the nation’s largest living generation, according to the Census Bureau.

In the first quarter of 2015, about 45 million Baby Boomers were in the labor force. The Baby Boom workforce peaked in size at nearly 66 million in 1997. The youngest Boomer is now 51 years old, while the oldest Boomers are approaching age 70. With more Boomers retiring every year and not much immigration to affect their size, the size of the Boomer workforce will continue to shrink.

Topics: Generations and Age, Millennials, Work and Employment

  1. Photo of Richard Fry

    is a senior researcher focusing on economics and education at Pew Research Center.

43 Comments

  1. Anonymous3 months ago

    Each generation should be an equal 20 year age span. One generation isn’t a 12 or 15 year span and another is 20 years. Use equal age spans and these numbers will change.

  2. David Carter5 months ago

    Why is Gen Y only 16 years and not 18 years like most generations?

    1. Anonymous3 months ago

      Either no one cares about poor Y’s so the focus on the more interesting ones either side or possibly the term generation is roughly linked with average age of procreation for the previous generation. If everyone knocks out 2 kids by the time they are in their early 20s a follow on 20 year generation is made. If everyone waits till there mid-late 30s to have children then a 30 or 40 year generation is made.

      Most of the analysis also seems to fit poorly with generation meaning the parents of. Things seem to frequently fall more neatly into two streams with an offset. That way if X gives birth to Y we need an intermediate term for those who were born between the X and Ys.

  3. bill sherman10 months ago

    Does anyone know how Generation X got its name?

    1. Jen10 months ago

      “X” is an unknown variable and they were distinctly “unknown” and so different from the generations immediately prior to them.

    2. Anonymous4 months ago

      Because of the punk band around the same era (which was named after a book about a dystopian future).

  4. Rob12 months ago

    well, that was a fun 8 years.

  5. Bruce Drake1 year ago

    You can find the information you need here: pewresearch.org/about/careers

  6. Gen X/ human1 year ago

    To me I have seen the workforce torch that the Baby Boom generation has held since the 1970’s now passed to Gen X due to Millenial’s (perceived) technological mastery.

    Gen X has been in the lower ranks for 20 years but have become silent as they see a younger group jumping ahead. Hey we think! But we think we are alone and so go about our lives not caring even when the teachers call the parents of children today Baby Boomers.

    I now worry that my own children- generation unnamed will be given the same treatment. I honestly feel that some acknowledgement of Generation X and their contributions to society would be greatly helpful in order to combat a repeating pattern of big generation passing over smaller ones for centuries to come. There needs to be an acknowledgment of silent generations and not just the “greatest” or biggest.

  7. David1 year ago

    I believe that the generation following Millenials has been rendered by some as “The Homeland Generation” or sometimes more ambiguously as simply “Generation Z.” These come in response to the tightened security institutions put into place following 9/11, and/or the natural continuation of the alphabet (i.e. Gen-X, Gen-Y or “Millenials,” and Gen-Z), respectively.

  8. Peter B1 year ago

    I posted this question before, but the posting was deleted.

    What are we going to call the generation currently in childhood? The generation following the millennial generation.

    Has anyone given that cohort group a name yet?

    1. Anonymous5 months ago

      Generation Z

  9. Rachel Hutchings1 year ago

    While I don’t want to sound like a negative Nancy, I resent the tone that pits one generation against another. If we were all one workforce pulling in one direction, could we not all see the value of every generation and what all bring to the table? Instead, it makes one generation seem “passed over” for others, which is, quite frankly, bullshit.

    1. Matthew Maginley1 year ago

      I empathize with your feeling about the tone. I think it is natural that we recoil with the endeavors of human beings of any age being reduced to a “labor force.” Economists are challenging the view of the how GDP is measured, maybe the time has come to shift our thinking along these lines as well, what about a “creative or innovative force”. There is still much work to be done and a valuable amount of insight being expressed on this page.

  10. Airz1 year ago

    I’d be interested in seeing these workforce demographics split by profession/work type. When I think millennial, I’m not thinking the 25 yo immigrant working construction or in the services industry.

  11. Gennxer1 year ago

    If you define Gen X by the years 1961 to 1981 (or 65′ to 84′) your results will change. One generation isn’t a 14 year span and another is a 22 year span. A generation is at least a 20 year time span.

    In a 2012 article for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, George Masnick wrote that the “Census counted 82.1 million” Gen Xers in the U.S.

    The Harvard Center uses 1965 to 1984 to define Gen X so that Boomers, Xers and Millennials “cover equal 20-year age spans”. Masnick concluded that immigration has filled in any birth year deficits during low fertility years of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    1. GenX1 year ago

      Generations should not be defined by 20 year spans (or greater), they are defined by events, cultural shifts, and other factors. Our world is changing so fast that 20 years is too great. You can do research on the generation and find many different spans (opinions) on when one generation ends and the next starts. Factors that ended the Baby Boom era and shifted to Gen X include women entering the workforce, changes in technology, and several other significant factors. It’s not the amount of time we need to look at to define a generation, it’s what has taken place like changes the upbringing, cultural norms, etc.

      1. Chris10 months ago

        In that case, Millennials should be divided, at minium, into 2 distinct generations. Children born in the 1980s came of age at the dawn of the Internet and most did not have access to it until late in high school or college – a majority still didn’t even own a personal computer. Children born in the 1990s have always had access to both computers and the Internet. If you want to be truly granular, you’ll need to define generations by the first video game console they owned.

        1. Amber Reny10 months ago

          I agree!

    2. Gennxer1 year ago

      Here’s the link to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies article: housingperspectives.blogspot.com…

    3. Screaming Mandrake1 year ago

      I’m with you on this one. Here are two ideas that I’d like to see crash and burn and wind up on the ash heap of history:

      1. The Baby Boom spanned 1946 to 1964, and Gen X spanned 1965 to 1980. This is based on VERY outdated studies of the subject which were in turn based on census figures. Gen X is essentially the people born in the 60’s and 70’s (1961-1980). Neil Howe and William Strauss have explained this in their works on the subject. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: if events like the return of the Vietnam POW’s, Watergate and gas lines were among your first experiences of what was going on in the world, you’re Gen X. It’s ridiculous to call people who fit that description Baby Boomers.

      2. The “prime working years” are between 25 and 54 (or whatever age range). This idea, by necessity, must die, simply because people are going to be working longer in their lives than their parents and grandparents did, and the workplace of the 21st century will continue to demand much from all of us. The days of retirement with a gold watch at 65 are gone for good, at least for the great bulk of us.

  12. 2L2Q1 year ago

    We don’t value the rat race corporate money grab.

    Most of America’s wealth is in a few hands and we accept that we’ll never see boat loads of cash and thus, our definition of wealth changes.

    We laugh at the people who know no other way of making capital except for going to work for someone else.

    We have proven that we will not work just to work.

    The Social Security system will be bled dry by the time we need it, so why work and pay
    into it?

    Most of us will not have enough to retire and therefore we are taking our retirement in our earlier years in forms of quitting jobs spontaneously, renting housing so we can leave at a moment’s notice and just generally not paying too much attention to the saps that are stuck in going to work 6 days a week because they live check to check.

    Few high paying jobs and super senior management has made the corporate outlook downright ugly. I don’t feel that 30 years of my life is worth a few trips to Disney World and a couple cars.

    As your generation struggles to find staffing for lower paying jobs, you will have to lower your experience or education requirements and in turn lower the pay even further. So you will inevitably have to deal with higher turnover and less experienced workers, if you can find them.

    We have massive amounts of debt by doing ‘the right thing’ and going to college. I have a family of 4 and can barely make ends meat. My wife recently found out she would need surgery. With healthcare being $600/month and a deductible of $8,000 it basically means we would pay most of the cost out of pocket. But, if I were unemployed, the cost would be $0. My student loan payments would go from $400/month to $20/month. My wife’s student loans would go from $260/month to $10/month. We then qualify for SNAP and health insurance, PLUS I get half of my pay and all my time, so tell me how in your little glass ball does it pay to work. How does it pay to go to college?

    You see, we reshuffled what determines value and wealth. We have transformed value and wealth into non intangible items that cannot be given or taken away. We value time and flexibility. Our wealth is determined by personal quotas and self-governance. Facing uncontrollable debt, an uncertain job market and an unbalanced capital system, it is clear to see that in the situation of the hard worker selling a car to pay for medical costs and then not receiving time off to help his wife is simply stupid when your neighbor tells you he went out of his way to be fired, to collect unemployment, receive free health care, receive free food (SNAP) , can have his heating bill paid for (LIHEAP), student loan obligations dropped from $660/month to $30/month and then work just enough to clear your unemployment base year and repeat.

    This is the new retirement I was speaking of. I much rather watch my kids grow up and be with them before and after school. I like being able to run and ride bikes with them. If I play the corporate game and maybe win maybe loose, my best scenario is that I retire alone, my wife has since passed due to not being able to afford preventative health maintenance, my kids have moved away because there are no jobs and now I sit on a porch, not even a beach, and wonder what happened in 30 years to get here.

    No sir, I’m sorry, I’m not interested. But if you will kindly continue beating your self-worth against a cubicle and open up your wallets so we can get to retiring!

    Me? I’m extremely wealthy and someday I may have lots of money too.

    1. way2go1 year ago

      That attitude is the reason there is $18 Trillion dollars of debt. Everyone wants to live off the backs of hard working Americans. If the government stopped illegal immigrants from coming and working in this country there would be plenty of jobs and wages would increase to fill those jobs. But, if you’re content giving your kids this impression, your lineage will be stuck in modern slavery forever.

  13. Fat Cat1 year ago

    How????? This generation doesn’t work! Millennials do little to nothing, try getting most of them to work a 30 hour work week let alone 40hrs…

    1. Rafael Corona Sr.1 year ago

      Because full time hours aren’t available. It’s not desire but inability.

    2. I hate Cats1 year ago

      Right. You must really know what you are talking about. Oh wait I’m a Millennial, I work 40 hours a week and 16 credit hours of school and I am becoming the norm now days. Gone are they days when you could go to school and work a 15 hours a week and survive. Why don’t you use a little bit of research and see who is actually the lazy generation.

    3. M2221 year ago

      I fall in the older range of the millennial group (I’m 30) and work 45+ hours per week. I work with millennials younger than me who also work very hard. While I understand that you stated “most”, you’re painting with an awfully broad brush.

    4. Cramer1 year ago

      Spoken like a true baby-boomer

    5. Brad1 year ago

      I’m a millennial and work 50 hours a week. This “lazy generation” stereotype conjures images of a selfrighteous boomer who is out of touch and believes everything they see on TV, or has a lazy son/grandson who they use to define a generation.

      An no…mommy and daddy didn’t carry me through college. My massive debt did. Putting us down to make you feel better about your selfish laziness won’t help.

      1. omjen1 year ago

        Nothing is more distasteful than a boomer calling a millenial lazy. I am the last year of boomer or first year of gen-x depending on the study. My children are millenials and I work with millenials. They are extremely hard-working and the expectations on them are far greater. Most boomers could not now get into the colleges they graduated from–and they were not saddled with huge debt. I missed out on most of the goodies from the boomer generation–so bored by their relentless arrogance and self-absorption.

    6. Jen10 months ago

      You’re defining work in a traditional 40 hour work week. Millennials BLEND their lives with work so they are able and willing to work at all days of the day/night, as long as they have time to focus on their lives also. It’s a very different PATTERN of work. It’s not a different work ETHIC. Our lives are MUCH more important our jobs and we will take a job that pays less if it means something to us and let’s us dedicate time to the important parts of our lives too.

  14. Leah1 year ago

    The media likes to use a standard basic popular demographic of 18-34 to group Millennials, instead of looking at pertinent age and era-related characteristics that correspond to current status of family, work, political, personality, and interests considerations. Gen-Xer’s are really 1965-1984. Most persons in the 31-35 age group have little in common with the true 18-26 year old Millennials.

    1. Andrew1 year ago

      Your defined age group, 31-35, has been a transitive age group for the last half-century, and will always seem separate than the younger age groups according to your considerations. But even having said that, as a 1982 baby, I still relate politically, personally, socially with those ten years younger than me FAR more than those ten years older than me. The current 18-34 age group will look more cohesive by 2025, and rightfully is labeled apart from Gen-Xer’s

    2. Amber10 months ago

      I agree

  15. José Misael Hilario Reyes1 year ago

    Question: If I am to cite this for a project, where can I find the original investigation? Or is this article in itself an enough scientifically grounded document?

    1. Katie R9 months ago

      did you get an answer on this? I’m thinking the same thing.

  16. Jeff1 year ago

    I’m wondering about the implications of this generational shift on Americans’ real incomes. It’s been well-noted that income growth has been tepid during this recovery. Could this be, at least in part, a function of younger workers representing a larger percentage of the workforce and older workers comprising a smaller percentage? If older, more experienced workers typically earn more than younger workers, could this help explain why incomes appear stagnant (i.e. proportionately fewer workers at the high end of the pay scale, more at the lower)?

    1. Richard Fry1 year ago

      Yes, I think it could have some implications. But just a couple of qualifications. When you mention tepid “income growth” what comes to my mind is tepid household income growth. Several of our research reports have noted the decline in household income since 2007 and that household income continued declining in to the first few years of the recovery. Our measure is median household income (adjusted for family size). In any event, I concur with your characterization that household income growth has been tepid. Keep in mind though that household income growth depends on the number of household members working, how many hours they work, as well as changes in other sources of income besides income earned in the labor market (such as rental income and dividend income). So household income growth does not just depend on what is happening in the labor market.

      But, I believe it is also the case that earnings growth has been quite tepid as well. So does changing demographics contribute to the lack of much wage growth we observe in the labor market? In principle it could. The problem I suspect is that it can not be the whole explanation. The reason I say this is that I believe wage growth has been flat for narrowly bracketed groups of workers in specific age groups. So while compositional change in the work force could be playing a role, I suspect that wage growth has been flat for specific age groups of workers, so more may be involved than compositional change.

  17. Bill1 year ago

    Why do the millenials get an extra year? 18-34 = 16 years, vs. gen x’ers with 15 years 35-50?

  18. RJ1 year ago

    great trending analysis, the one piece that should be worked into is overall size of the different generations. I think there are more Millennials than Gen X’ers in total numbers.

    1. Richard Fry1 year ago

      Thanks for the feedback. Yes, this blog only focuses on the labor force (those working or looking for work). You are correct, in terms of total population there are more Millennials than Gen X’ers and the Census Bureau projects that this year there will be more Millennials than Baby Boomers. See this earlier blog on the Census Bureau projections of the total population: pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/0…

  19. Doug McVay1 year ago

    Interesting. I’m curious to know what happens if you expand the GenX cohort to the full 17-18 year period by which the other generational groups are defined, ending it in 1982, which makes the millennial generation those born from 1983 to 2000 (appropriate given the name used for it), rather than cutting them off short as you have in this?

    1. Richard Fry1 year ago

      I have not tabulated the precise figures. But you are proposing to shift 33 & 34 year-olds to the definition of the Gen X labor force and adding 16 & 17 year-olds to the definition of the Millennial labor force (spoken from the vantage point of today, 2015). There are many more 33 & 34 year-olds in the LF than 16 & 17 year-olds. So, as a result, under your definitions the Gen X LF would be larger than the Millennial LF in the first quarter of 2015 and the “Millennial labor force” would not overtake the Gen X labor force until sometime in the future.