Millennials Getting Raise Have Retired Baby Boomers to Thank
What would you like to know
- Wages are rising at all income levels and workers are quitting in large numbers.
- Aside from the effects of the pandemic, it is because the working age population is shrinking.
After decades in which employers have generally taken the lead, something is different in the US job market. Wages are increasing at all income levels. Workers are resigning in large numbers. McDonald’s franchisees provide hourly workers with child care services and tuition fees.
The COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented government assistance in response is clearly a part of it, but it may also be relevant that the working-age population stopped growing a few years ago.
Definitions of “working age” vary. In Bureau of Labor Statistics jargon, this means everyone is 16 and over, while international statisticians such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank tend to define it between 15 and 64. years. I think the metric I chose – ages 20 to 64 – better reflects who is actually available to work in the United States, given that it includes all age groups with a market participation rate of work greater than 50% and excludes all those for which it is less.
Here is the same data represented in terms of annual percentage change, making more clear the historical change we are going through.
Changes in the Census Bureau’s population estimates are responsible for most of the volatility in the unsmoothed line above. The sharp decline in both lines in the early 1950s can be explained by the sharp increase during the Korean War in the number of uniformed servicemen, who are removed from the population count for the purposes of labor statistics (as are prisoners and other institutionalized persons). The Vietnam War also appears to have slowed growth in the 1960s, although by the time the famous baby boomers turned 20 in 1966, they had passed its effects.
The oldest baby boomer is 75 this year and the youngest 57, so their entry into the 65 and over ranks has been holding back population growth from 20 to 64 for a decade now. The latest Census Bureau population projections, carried out in 2017, predicted a modest rebound in the growth rate after the end of the aging of the baby boomers, but still much slower growth than that observed in the 1950s until the mid-1980s. 2010.
As the graph shows, reality has already exceeded expectations. This would appear to be mainly due to a slowdown in legal immigration during the Trump administration that turned to a virtual halt in the first few months of the pandemic. Growth is likely to continue to be below projections over the next decades – barring a surge in immigration – as birth rates have fallen faster than expected. The estimated 3.6 million babies born in the United States in 2020 was the lowest total since 1979, and given that the rate of decline increased as last year progressed, births this year will probably be even fewer.
That America’s population growth has slowed is not exactly news. The decline in the 20- to 64-year-old population since late 2018 has attracted less attention, which is not surprising given that hardly anyone keeps track of the 20- to 64-year-old population (I had to subtract those 65 and over from the BLS population estimate from its estimate of 20 and over to get the numbers). The most watched ‘older’ population of 25 to 54 began to decline in 2008, a few years after baby boomers turned 55, resumed growth in the mid-2010s as the the most populous part of the millennial generation has turned 25, and seems destined to fluctuate in a narrow band over the next few years.
Analyzes of these trends, however you choose to measure them, tend to focus on the negative implications for economic growth, US geopolitical clout, the funding of the pension system, and other macroeconomic issues. These are valid concerns, but focusing on them to the exclusion of everything else can be misleading, as four researchers from Canada and the UK described in a recent article published in the American Political Science Review.