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.