Wielding Generational Power
Visual Capitalist, an online global forecasting company, recently published its inaugural Generational Power Index (GPI), designed to measure the influence each generation has over society in the United States.
To compile the GPI, researchers used government data from March and April of 2021, as well as industry rankings from trusted sources such as the Pew Research Center and the U.S. Federal Reserve. “Generational power” is defined as 1) economic power, 2) political power, and 3) cultural power, which produce a composite overall power ranking.
Key to the research is the basic assumption that each of America’s five partial or full workforce generations (identified by birthdates) is shaped by its own unique historical context and cultural experiences, presumably leading to an opportunity to shape policy aligning with that generation’s values. The ultimate goal of the exercise is to calculate each generation’s “participation in public life and wealth creation.”
Early in the study, the GPI team laid out key events in history that shaped one or more generations, such as the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War, the tech revolution, the Obama election, and the Trump election. Every generation prior to Gen Z cited Sept. 11 as the most important historic event in their lifetime. The 2022 Generation Power Index will, in all likelihood, feature Covid as “the most historic event” for all generations.
Given that the percentage of boomers in the population (21.8%) almost exactly matches that of millennials (22%), GPI’s overall power ranking is stark: Boomers continue to hold 43.4% of economic power and 47.4% of political power among all generations. Millennials have 9.6% of total economic power and 10% of political power.
In fact, boomer economic power alone is more than millennial, Gen X, and Gen Z combined, according to the study. (Gen Xers do have an outsize influence in the small business arena, where they make up the majority of owners.) More than half of Fortune 500 business leaders come from the baby boomer ranks. The study reports that “baby boomers have stretched their tenure well beyond previous generations,” so Gen Xers and millennials are stuck. If you’re not 57 to 63 years old (and most likely male), the C-suite is not just on another floor, it’s in a locked location with no known address.
What makes the Visual Capitalist GPI so fascinating is its examination of political power by generation. Despite the emphasis in 2016 on “Bernie babies” (generally defined as millennials supporting Bernie Sanders for president) and the media’s fascination in 2020 and 2021 with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (age 32) and her colleagues in “The Squad,” boomers hold more than half of all congressional seats, even though they account for less than a quarter of the population.
With a similar population demographic, millennials hold only 6% of all congressional seats. Moreover, boomers and the silent generation account for 80% of all political spending. Those $10 campaign contributions from millennials can, as claimed, “add up,” but the habit of significant political giving, not to mention the ability to do so, has been ingrained in boomers and the silent generation for more than 50 years.
On the cultural front, Gen Xers win the day, with a 58% influence rating in news media coverage and high ratings in sports, art, and film and TV. Millennials, unsurprisingly, rule on digital platforms and “celebrity influence.”
As to wealth creation, it would appear that the real money goes to a small number of celebrities rather than the “influential millennials,” a phenomenon not investigated in the study.
Whether millennials will actually be beneficiaries of the “great wealth transfer,” when they could inherit as much as $68 trillion from their baby boomer parents in the next three decades, depends on tax laws, estate laws, and the performance of the stock market.
Because boomer wealth is largely tied to investments and homes, that hoped-for bonanza could be illusory. Contrary to stereotypes, plenty of millennials would actually like to erase their debt and earn their way into “wealth creation,” both for themselves and for their heirs, the “alpha generation” (ages 8 and younger, who make up 8.4% of the population).
As to that alpha generation: Young as they are, these little people are still destined to eventually battle baby boomers for workspace. The oldest alphas, who will be considered fully workforce-ready when they turn 20 in 2033, will most assuredly still be dealing with boomer power in their lives.
The youngest boomers will only be 69 years old in 2033, most likely healthy, and almost certainly still working. That’s the thing about boomers: There are just so darn many of them, and they have no shame about getting old.
The GPI used these commonly accepted, if not always popular, definitions for generational groupings as they existed in 2021:
Silent Generation: Age 76 and older
Born 1928-1945 Parents of Gen X, 7.6% of the population
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Baby Boomers: Ages 57-75
Born 1946-1964 Parents of millennials, children of early silent generation ,21.8% of the population
Gen X: Ages 41-56
Born 1965-1980 Parents of Gen Z, children of silent generation, 19.9% of the population
Millennials (Gen Y): Ages 25-40
Born 1981-1996, children of boomers, 22% of the population
Gen Z: Ages 9-24
Born 1997-2012, children of Gen X, 20.3% of the population
Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney. Holstein also mediates employment and business law disputes (holsteinmediation.com).