Millennials surpass Gen Xers as the largest generation in U.S. labor force
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.
This 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.
Generation 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.
One 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.
Richard Fry is a senior researcher focusing on economics and education at Pew Research Center.