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Generation X
Generation Y
Generation Z

Prolonged Retirements Could Become America's Worst Nightmare

In November, Wells Fargo released the results of its seventh annual Retirement Survey which found for many middle class Americans, 80 is the new 65 when it comes to retirement. According to the survey, a quarter (25%) of middle class Americans say they will need to work until at least age 80 to live comfortably in retirement. Three-fourths (74%) expect to work in their retirement years.

In November, Wells Fargo released the results of its seventh annual Retirement Survey which found for many middle class Americans, 80 is the new 65 when it comes to retirement. According to the survey, a quarter (25%) of middle class Americans say they will need to work until at least age 80 to live comfortably in retirement. Three-fourths (74%) expect to work in their retirement years.

Many people saw the results of the survey, but most probably did not see the firestorm of online discussions this survey created. Discussion boards on CNNYahooCNBC, and other web sites became quite heated as Baby Boomers and Generations X and Y argued about whether prolonged retirement is a good idea.

Generation X (currently in their late-20s to mid-40s) and Generation Y  (currently in their late 20’s and younger) blame not only the current economic malaise on the Boomers, but also the inability to advance their own careers as fewer managerial level jobs are opening up due to Boomers remaining in the workforce.

This “gray ceiling” as they are calling it, is preventing them from attaining higher salaried positions and creating their own financial independence.

The Boomer’s (currently in their late-40’s to mid-60’s) blame economic circumstances beyond their control, a lack of jobs and age discrimination for their financial struggles. Some Boomers are indifferent towards the needs of younger generations, showing an “I’ve got mine, too bad for you” and “Get in line and pay your dues” attitude.

Regardless of which side of the issue you lean, a couple observations are painfully clear.  First, working longer is going to be a reality for many people, and second, it’s an emotionally charged issue.

The fact that the vast majority of middle class Americans expect to work well past the traditional retirement age has significant societal and economic implications. Personally, I just met someone (a Boomer, of course) who tried to convince me (unsuccessfully, I might add) that people should work until they’re 80 or even longer.

Undoubtedly, demographic shifts and economic decline has placed the United States in a position of great uncertainty, which has every generation feeling like they’re in a no-win situation.

But as someone who researches this topic in great detail, what’s unsettling to me is the amount of time and resources focused on caring for the Boomers–their careers, beauty, health, housing, finances, and everything in between.

In stark contrast, there is very little attention paid to workforce development, succession planning, education, training, and employment of Generations X and Y. I’m convinced this is because the Boomers comprise the vast majority of political power and executive leadership in nearly every sector and region of the nation.

Our society remains obsessed with the aging Boomer population and prolonging retirement is just another example of this anti-aging trend. In the meantime, our future generations have been neglected and abandoned.

Teen unemployment at an all-time high? Leadership skill training and succession planning virtually non-existent? Talent among people under 30 turning over at an unprecedented rate? College debt is higher than nation’s credit card debt? So what. Those young people will have to figure it out for themselves. The ‘Me Generation’ can’t afford to retire now so everyone else will just have to be patient and wait their turn.

For 40 years, Boomers have been the dominant generation. However, by 2015 Generation Y will outnumber the Boomers and change is likely to ensue. Hopefully, it won’t be too late and our economy won’t be ruined beyond repair.

To be clear, I’m not completely insensitive to the trials and tribulations of Boomers. I understand that Boomers have found themselves in the midst of great economic uncertainty.

Raised during one of the most prosperous eras in America, Boomers expected to work until hitting a retirement age and then to retire with an employer-paid pension plan. However, defined-benefit pensions are now uncommon in the private sector and are being scaled back for a growing number of new government employers.

At the same time, political leaders are discussing cuts to future Social Security and Medicare benefits, and many Boomers have seen their savings washed away by unemployment, sharp declines in house values, and wild swings in stock prices.

Politicians have recognized that spending on Social Security and Medicaid is not sustainable. According to the Senate Committee on Aging, increasing the retirement age would cut less than one third of the Social Security deficit.

I also understand that the concept of where and when and how we work has changed.

The retirement age of 65 was set back in the 1930s when the American economy was built on the backs of blue-collar workers, whose bodies wouldn’t allow continued strenuous work as they lived into their 60s.

However, many of the manufacturing jobs that used to reside in Detroit or Cleveland were shipped overseas in the 1970s and 1980s. Americans now do work that is less physically demanding but more mentally taxing.

Because of this, Americans are living longer. According to a U.S. Senate report, the life expectancy of U.S. citizens was 70 in 1969. Now, the average American can expect to live to 77.

What I disagree with is this notion that prolonging retirement for Boomers so they can work until they’re 80 can improve our economy.

Indeed, if we make the Boomers work longer we could milk the Boomers for more taxes and reduce the cost of government pensions and Social Security benefits in the process.

But let’s be honest here. If the U.S. wants to compete in a global economy it doesn’t need older workers as much as it needs young workers with the latest job skills.

There’s been more technology developed in the last five years than the last 50 years. Generation Y is the best educated generation of Americans, boasting a high volume of college graduates, and the most tech-savvy of all the generations.  Younger generations are also more innovative, driven, adaptable, and productive in comparison to older generations.

Also, there are entire industries at risk of aging out –industries like construction, manufacturing, finance, and healthcare– which are the cornerstones of the American economy. When entire industries are failing miserably at recruiting and retaining young workers– literally at risk of aging out–the U.S. has a serious problem on its hands!

Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that increasing the retirement age would not keep people working and paying taxes longer — it would just increase the level of poverty among people in their mid 60s who could neither find jobs nor collect Social Security benefits.

Since the Great Recession began, the unemployment rate among people over 55 has been at the highest levels in more than 60 years. When companies started laying off workers in massive waves in 2008 and 2009, millions of Baby Boomers lost their jobs and haven’t been able to find their way back into the workforce.

Many of them have decided to file for early Social Security benefits. In 2007, before the recession hit, 38 percent of 62-year-olds asked for their benefits. By 2009, the figure was up to 42 percent.

Instead of focusing on cutting costs by making people work longer, government leaders should be trying to boost the tax revenues generated by highly productive, innovative companies. In today’s competitive, globalized economy, U.S. companies should be focused on developing the talent and leadership (or lack thereof) who will be filling the void left by the massive exodus of Boomers.

The U.S. population is aging. And right now, more emphasis is placed on keeping our aging population working than it is on growing a young workforce capable of supporting our aging population.

In the future, employers and government alike will have to make some tough decisions about who should have the first crack at jobs and financial help: Boomers or Generations X and Y?

Let’s hope they make the right choice.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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