As 2022 draws to a close, there are two issues that seem to have completely dominated the year – supply chain, and labor shortage. Those have been the two key drivers at pretty much every conference I have attended this year. Fixing the supply chain is beyond my ability. But dealing with our persistent labor shortage is right in my wheelhouse, and it starts with a better understanding of what people mean by ‘labor shortage.’
The rapid transition from too many applicants to not enough has given a lot of business whiplash. Instead of traditionally being able to set most of the terms of the negotiation, many businesses now find themselves having to hire employees who don’t satisfy every requirement and who simultaneously expect to be paid better than they would have been two years ago – and who are smart enough to take advantage of the labor shortage to leave you for a better opportunity if one comes along. This shift in power from employers to employees has resurrected an idea that never really dies – that today’s young people are lazier, less loyal, more entitled, and overall worse than they used to be.
For this article, I could spend my time trying to bombard you with facts – today’s young workers have more education than any similar group of 20-somethings ever has; they have more information than anyone in history ever has; their workplace tenure is actually higher than it was for 20-somethings in the 1960s and 1970s; etc. I could even argue that it’s a good thing today’s workers are demanding as much as they are, because doing so will ultimately push employers to improve the way they manage their employees, which in turn will drive more productivity and innovation and all that. But if you’re not already inclined to believe those facts, then I’m sure you could find some other pieces of data to support your belief that, you know, kids today…
So instead, I’d like to paint in broad strokes, and talk about what happens as we age.
In our 20s, the vast majority of us are figuring ourselves out. Part of that journey involves deciding whether or not we want to play the “working world” game. Most of us decide that we do, and we eventually settle in and begin the process of building a long-term future for ourselves. But some of us decide not to play along. There were plenty of die-hard hippies in the 1960s who swore to never succumb to the will of “the man,” and there are plenty of vagabond hipsters and FIRE enthusiasts who plan to retire at 33 and spend the rest of their lives living in a van or trying to become the next TikTok influencer.
By our 30s, that process has mostly run its course. And from then on, throughout our 30s, 40s, 50s, and into our 60s, those of us who have chosen to participate in the full-time working world find ourselves surrounded overwhelmingly by people who made the same decision. Our same-age peers become more and more like us, in the sense that we all understand that there’s work to be done, and we need to do it.
And then, eventually, our business grows and some people retire and we find ourselves needing to hire some new people. And if we are sufficiently old and established enough when that happens, we have actually forgotten what our 20s are like. We see these young people still in the process of figuring themselves out, uncertain if they want to commit for the rest of their lives to our enterprise, uncertain what kind of future they want for themselves, and we think, “What’s wrong with these kids? How do they not already know how this works?” It doesn’t matter to us that we did the same thing when we were their age, because most of us don’t remember that we ever did it.
The average Baby Boomer born between 1957-1964 had 5.5 jobs between the ages of 18 and 24. That’s basically one new job every year. They had 4.5 jobs between the ages of 25-34, 2.9 jobs from 35-44, and 1.7 jobs from 45-50. You’ll notice the number of changes decreases as we get older. That’s not unique to Baby Boomers. That’s everyone.
So if you’re inclined to rail against the unconscionable laziness and disloyalty of today’s youth, I hope this helps temper it a bit. You had your turn already; it’s their turn now. And if we want them to stick around, it’s up to us to create the conditions and opportunities that will convince them to do so – just like your current employer created those conditions and opportunities that managed to convince you of doing the same.