Young Workers Can't Advance Because of the Gray Ceiling

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Young Workers Can

For many of today’s most ambitious young managers and professionals, there are no openings in the hierarchy above them. No matter how stellar their educational background or how hard they work, they are facing the realistic possibility that they will not be promoted to the ranks of upper management for another 20 or 30 years.

How could this be? People in their 30s and early 40s are being held back by the powerful demographic force of the Baby Boom generation. The 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 are the largest generation in history. They represent 29 percent of the U.S. population. By contrast, the 40 million Gen Xers, born between 1964 and 1976, account for just 16 percent of the population.

We’ve discussed the Boomers’ impact on a number of other trends in previous issues. The fact that this generation is so large and so active means that, even as they age, they are increasingly staying in place and blocking the careers of younger workers.

To understand exactly what is happening, consider this: The U.S. Census Bureau reveals that in 1996, there were only 43 million workers in their 40s and 50s, while there were 64 million workers in their 30s. Now, only a decade later, the situation has changed dramatically as the youngest Baby Boomers hit middle age. There are now 69 million workers in their 40s and 50s, and just 40 million in their 30s.

At most American companies, there’s little chance for younger managers to earn promotions because there is a multitude of executives in their 40s and 50s above them. Most of these Boomer executives aren’t going to retire for two or three more decades. For example, Fortune1 magazine reports that 44 percent of senior-level executives surveyed by Korn/Ferry said they plan to keep working past the age of 64.

At law firms, partners are delaying retirement — and, as a result, they are delaying the advancement of younger attorneys. According to’s annual survey, the average time it takes for an associate to make partner grew from seven years in 1998, to eight and a half years in 2003, to nine and a half years today.

Making matters worse for Generation X is that age discrimination laws protect Baby Boomers, but not them. According to BBC News,2 the Age Discrimination in Employment Act makes it unlawful to fire, or to fail to hire, anyone on the grounds that he or she is over the age of 40. That means companies can’t force people to retire; the only exceptions are CEOs and commercial airline pilots. However, there’s no law that says companies can’t fire workers or refuse to hire them because they’re under 40...

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