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Demographics and the Canadian workforce

Has generation X been overlooked?

By Brian Kreissl

I am fascinated by demographic trends in the workforce. However, I’m not necessarily talking about real or perceived traits pertaining to specific generational cohorts. 

Instead, I’m referring to the size of those cohorts relative to other groups and trends that relate to increased longevity and an aging workforce. Aside from all of the stereotypes surrounding the various generations, the size and composition of the workforce is going to have a huge impact on employers in the years to come. 

I attended a great session on Labour Market Trends at ADP’s Meeting of the Minds Conference in Niagara Falls, Ont. recently. At that session, Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, provided some very interesting information about the size and composition of the Canadian workforce.

She showed how the workforce is definitely getting older. The aging population is a result of fewer babies being born, changing attitudes towards aging and retirement, increased longevity, the ban on mandatory retirement and people working longer because of concerns about inadequacy of income on retirement.

But, eventually, we all end up leaving the workforce in one way or another, whether due to ill health, a desire to enjoy life, financial security or death. Because so many boomers are now reaching their 60s, we are finally starting to see more of them retire.

Inadequate bench strength 

One of the problems with that is few organizations have the bench strength of leadership talent ready to take over when boomer executives do retire. There are several reasons for this, not least of which is that many organizations operated in “lean and mean” mode for so long by not focusing enough on training and development and talent management. 

But as a generation Xer, I have another perspective on this. While things changed a bit during the Great Recession, for so long it felt very much to me like all of the attention was on generation Y. 

It largely felt like generation X was being ignored for so long, with employers constantly fretting about how to attract, retain, engage and promote generation Y employees. While some commentators somewhat cynically suggested that was because boomers often had generation Y children, I believe some of it was due to gen X being a much smaller generation. 

But while both the boomers and gen Y are larger cohorts (after all, generation Y or Millennials are sometimes referred to as “echo boomers”) the number of gen X employees isn’t so small as to be statistically insignificant. We’re still talking about millions of workers in their late 30s and 40s chomping at the bit, ready to step into more senior roles once older leaders retire or scale back their careers. 

Starting careers in tough times 

But aside from the size of the gen X cohort in aggregate, I believe many of us were overlooked as high-potential employees because we started our careers when the economy was really bad. Studies actually show that people who began their careers when times were tough may never fully catch up to those who started during more prosperous times. 

Many of the younger Millennials may actually be experiencing the same thing due to the lacklustre job market over the last few years. Making matters worse, as Spinks points out, there are fewer entry level jobs for young people these days because in many cases those jobs are now held by people their grandparents’ age. 

Even if it doesn’t feel that way quite yet to most of us, many people have commented that gen X should be poised to take over the leadership or organizations quite quickly because we’re such a small group. Time will tell if that actually happens or if senior leadership positions will go to the slightly younger group of Millennials companies were fawning over a few years back, bypassing generation X altogether. 

But because generation X is a smaller group — and the group coming up after the Millennials is even smaller — there are still major concerns about the possibility of labour shortages in the future. Once the large cohort of baby boomers has finally retired, there is a question about how jobs will be filled and how people in the paid labour force will be able to support all of those retirees.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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