To understand both changes to the workforce and changing attitudes toward work, don’t watch young people. Watch their parents (and uncles, aunts, and grandparents).
Young people are the supposed vanguards of a new economic age. Unlike their parents, young people are said to value happiness over money. They prefer gigs over jobs. They prefer flexibility and meaning rather than status and hours at work. Rather than attach themselves to a single company, they are ushering in an economy of coffee-shop “creatives,” hot-desking between WeWork-style shared work spaces in pursuit of their individualistic dreams.
But there is another generation of U.S. workers with those non-monetary values and gig-style jobs. It’s not America’s youngest workers, but rather America’s oldest.
There is little question that an aging workforce—and an aging country—is one of the most important features of the modern economy. By 2024, one quarter of the workforce will be 55 and over—more than twice what the share was in 1994. And as they extend their working years, sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity, it’s older Americans who are quietly adopting Millennial stereotypes, far more than actual Millennials are.
First, consider the gig economy, which is often framed as a Millennial counter-revolution to the failures of the traditional economy. In fact, the gig economy is full of older workers. People over the age of 65 are four times more likely to be self-employed than those under 34, and are more likely to work part-time jobs, too, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
One of the most important trends in the workforce in the last decade has been the rise of “alternative work arrangements,” like freelancing or part-time work. These jobs, which often lack benefits like health care, have grown significantly in the last decade, long before Uber, Airbnb, and Lyft took off. Workers between 55 and 75 years old are 70 percent more likely to be in such alternative arrangements than 25-54 year-olds, according to the economist Jed Kolko. According to internal Uber data, half of its drivers are over 40.
One can see the same trend in part-time work. According to a survey from the Shift Commission, a joint venture between Bloomberg Tech and New America (and whose working sessions on the future of work I attended), older people are much more likely to stitch together income from multiple sources. More than 60 percent of workers under 34 derive income from a single source—as one would from earning a salary from one company. But almost three quarters of workers over 65 make money from more than one source, not counting Social Security. Gigs, freelance positions, and part-time jobs, although often hailed as the province of Millennials, are actually dominated by older workers.
Second, far more than Millennials, older workers value meaning over money. The Shift Commission asked workers if they most valued money, happiness (“doing things I enjoy”), or meaning (“doing things I feel are important”). Younger people tended to say that making money was the most important part of a job. Nobody rated happiness less important than 18-to-24-year-olds; the highest rating from people older than 65. The primacy of meaning—“doing things I feel are important”—was lowest for 25-to-34-year-olds and highest, again, for senior citizens.
This doesn’t prove that young people are greedy, or that older workers are wise. It suggests, rather, that generational stereotypes of carefree youths overlook the fact that young people can often be the most desperate to earn money, particularly since so many are graduating from college in debt or starting off in low-paying jobs.
Third, many writers—including myself—have predicted that if automation begins to eat away at the labor demand, it will sooner affect young workers, whose menial jobs are often routine, and, therefore, most easily replaced by a machine or algorithm. But it’s older workers whose jobs are most at risk of disappearing, according to Kolko. Thirteen percent of workers over 55 are in occupations that the BLS projects will shrink in the next decade, compared with 9 percent of workers under 35.
Finally, there are several cultural shifts that are purportedly Millennial-driven where older consumers are actually leading the charge. Take, for instance, the rise of restaurants. In October last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that grocers are struggling as Millennials move away from supermarkets and club stores and spend more money in restaurants. But since the early 1990s, the group that has most shifted its food spending toward restaurants has been senior citizens.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that older workers are better archetypal Millennials than Millennials themselves. The stereotype of the carefree freelancer who values meaning over money seems like it would most apply to somebody who’s not desperately poor, yet is anxious enough about their financial condition to work several jobs to make extra cash. Middle-class workers about to enter retirement after decades of steady employment, yet without adequate savings, would seem to fit that description—at least as well as young people trying to get their start.
One should always be careful not to oversell generations, which are, by definition, extremely broad swaths of tens of millions of people with diverse wealth, education, and living conditions. Still, when economists and marketers want to understand changing attitudes toward work and life, they often focus on Millennials. It’s tantalizing to say that, because something new is happening, the newest cohort must be responsible for the change. But many of the trends ascribed to Millennials are actually better fits for their parents.