Labor shortage may be down the road
By Chuck Raasch
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON Short-term worries about rising unemployment obscure a long-term concern that the United States could face a severe worker shortage in about 12 years.
That's the conclusion of some analysts probing the future of a rapidly evolving U.S. workforce.
Besides predicting the possible shortage of 40 million workers by 2015, workforce consultant Jay Jamrog says that for the first time in the post-agricultural age, large percentages of four generations of Americans soon will be working together.
As the U.S. economy struggles with post-recession blues and fear of fallout from the war in Iraq, the unemployment rate has edged up to 5.8 percent. That's still lower than other economic downturns, but the rise in joblessness especially long-term unemployment has become a source of concern in the Bush administration.
Yet that problem could flip in coming decades.
Reversal of fortune
Jamrog, executive director of the Human Resource Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that about 43 percent of current workers will become eligible for retirement within 10 years.
The number of those who actually retire could be far lower because of financial and lifestyle pressures, he said. Many older workers may choose to work part time.
Either way, he and others predict the search for good workers, especially managers, may be the next big challenge facing the U.S. economy.
Some born in the 1930s and 1940s are already working into their 70s. This so-called "Depression generation" will, in two years, be working with college graduates from a "baby boomlet" generation born after 1984.
"Today, I believe that we are seeing two powerful trends that will alter the way work is accomplished and people are managed in organizations," Jamrog said. "First is a prolonged shortage of top talent in almost every profession. Second is the fact that we will soon have four generations of employees in the workforce at the same time. These two trends are creating a work environment that hasn't been seen in recent history."
Some are not anticipating a smooth transition.
Sara Rix, a senior policy adviser for AARP, the nation's largest advocacy group for seniors, said that in one recent poll for the organization, 70 percent of those ages 45 to 75 said they expected to work beyond their traditional retirement years.
"Will there be jobs (for older workers)?" she said. "And if there will be jobs, will they be ones that boomers will find sufficiently attractive to be encouraged to prolong their work life?"
She said that with more generations commingling, the starkly different formative experiences of each could have a huge impact on future workplaces.
Some say the initial impact could be felt when economic recovery allows companies that have gone through severe downsizing to hire new employees.
Workplace consultants Roger Herman and Joyce Goia, authors of a report, "Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People," predict that the mix of new hires across generations will cause problems.
"Leaders should anticipate conflict between these various groups of employees because of their experience and expectations," Herman and Goia said, arguing that companies will undergo "a metamorphosis while in motion."
Rix said the United States saw a glimpse of the future in the 1980s when older workers began taking jobs in industries long associated with entry-level workers, such as fast food and retail.
Jamrog said if that trend accelerates as baby boomers retire, the economy will have lost an important training ground for younger people.
In these entry-level jobs, he said, workers learn the value of "being on time, of service, a work ethic."
Agricultural societies sometimes had four generations at work together, but shorter life spans restricted that likelihood. Within two decades, Jamrog said, the workforce could encompass five generations. Children born today could, at 21, be working with people born before World War II.
The trend is worth watching because generations have distinctive traits and very different attitudes toward work. Here is Jamrog's view of each:
The Depression generation.
Born between1927 and 1945, this generation came of age at a time when loyalty between companies and workers often meant long careers with one company. They are more likely to have traditional retirement views and expectations.
The baby boom generation.
Born between 1946 and 1964, this is the largest generation in U.S. history 75.5 million people. The vanguard of this diverse generation will reach retirement age later this decade and is the demographic reason for the much-debated anticipated stress on the nation's retirement programs.
But this generation, so marked by large social and work changes, is feeling unexpected pressure not only to put children through college but to care for elderly parents, Jamrog said. Many feel let down because the "social contract" they understood when they began working loyalty and an expectation of a good retirement has been dashed by changes in corporate retirement programs and a lagging stock market.
"This generation will work until they die," Jamrog predicted.
The "baby bust" generation.
Jamrog describes this group, born between 1965 and 1983, as "realists" who anticipate working in many different jobs and for many different employers over a lifetime.
The baby boomlet generation.
Nearly as large as the boomers, the vanguard of this 74.6-million-strong generation born from 1984 to 2002 was just going to school when the Internet began. Their social and work circles are far larger than any previous generation by virtue of the World Wide Web. Jamrog cited one study saying that 35 percent of children from this generation found a friend online.