I am currently reading Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap. (There will be a review when I have finished it.) In the first chapter there is a graph of the birth rate in the United States which brought home to me how much our unarticulated assumptions matter.
Here is the graph (taken from Wikipedia):
This shows a clear increase in birth rate between 1946 and 1962 (known as the Baby Boom), followed by a slump between 1963 and 1980 (Generation X) and a rise again between 1981 and 2000 (Generation Y, or the Millennials). Compare this with the birth rate in the UK, as illustrated in the graph below (drawn using figures from the Office of National Statistics).
I have shaded three areas in the UK chart, marking years after the 1930s in which the birth rate rose significantly above the norm. The peaks occurring in the periods 1944-49 and 1957-1972 exceeded the mean for the century (just over 700,000 births per annum, apart from a slight dip below this in 1945). I have marked another bulge between 1986 and 1996, but the birth rate in these years is still below the mean for the century (the peak year is 1990, with 706,140 births — 2000 below the mean). By comparison, the birth rate over the same period in the US exceeded that in some years of their post-war baby boom.
For me, this difference between the US and UK is striking. It means that we need to be careful when using terms like “baby boom” and when assessing the impact of generational change in the workplace. As the US Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in 1985 (“Recent trends in unemployment and the labor force, 10 countries”):
In North America, birth rates peaked in the late 1950′s . In Western Europe, however, the peak occurred in the early to mid-1960′s, which coincided with the tapering off of North American birth rates. In Australia and Japan, the peak was reached much later, in the 1970′s.
In the United States and Canada, the children born during the baby boom reached working age in the early 1970′s, whereas those in Western European countries reached working age nearly 10 years later, during a period of generally declining economic growth . For Australia and Japan, the entry of the baby-boom generation is just beginning or yet to come.
There are two significant implications for the workplace. The first is that the UK baby boomers will be retiring ten years after those in the US. As a result, whereas the US needs to cope now with the “yawning gap in skills, experience, leadership, knowledge, and experience” (as Generation Blend puts it) that the loss of this cohort will bring, UK businesses have another decade to work out how to respond. On the other hand, the United States can almost count on their Millennials to replace the Baby Boomers, given the significant similarity in the birth rates. In the UK we do not have that luxury — there are not enough people in Generation Y to fill the places of the retiring generation. As a result there is almost certainly a different dynamic between the generations in the UK than there is in the US, and those of us on this side of the Atlantic need to be conscious of this when taking our cue from American studies and commentary.