Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers: A Snapshot of the American Workforce

Published on Apr 3, 2017

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

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We’re as guilty as anyone else. In recent months, we’ve researched and written about about the jobs that millennials—and millennials vs. baby boomers—hold in the U.S. What we’ve haven’t focused on is generation X, America’s “neglected middle child,” according to the Pew Research Center.

But that changes with this post.

We created a Tableau data visualization that shows the size and share of workers by occupation for three generations in one. Click on the millennial, generation X, and baby boomer headers to see bubbles for 785 standard occupation codes; the size of the bubble is based on 2016 jobs and the color is based on 2015 percentile hourly earnings.

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A few notes:

  • We defined millennials as workers aged 22 to 34, generation Xers as 35- to 54-year-olds, and baby boomers as 55 and above. These are the tidiest generational definitions that fit with the age cohorts in our workforce demographic data.

  • We used 25th percentile earnings for millennials, median (50th percentile) earnings for gen Xers, and 75th percentile earnings for baby boomers, assuming that workers’ pay advances up the wage curve as they age. If a millennial earns a wage at the 25th percentile, that means 75% of workers in the occupation make more. (For a full definition of percentile earnings and what Emsi’s occupational earnings include, see here.)

  • All data is for the nation and includes wage-and-salary workers and self-employed workers. It comes from Emsi’s Q1 2017 dataset.

  • We collect workforce demographic data using the BLS’s Occupational Employment Statistics program, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, and our detailed county-level industry and staffing pattern data.

What does this data show?

First, the occupations with the largest number of jobs for millennials, gen Xers, and baby boomers are mostly low-paying administrative or service fields. However, it’s interesting how this dynamic—and the pay—changes over time.

For millennials, retail salespersons, combined food preparation and serving workers, and waiters and waitresses are three of the most-employed occupations. For generation X, the largest occupations are registered nurses, retail salespersons, and office clerks. And for baby boomers, easily the most-employed occupations are retail salespersons, secretaries and administrative assistants, and office clerks.

Retail sales workers are one of the consistent threads across generations. There are 4.75 million retail sales workers in the U.S., making it hands down the largest occupation. (No. 2 is cashiers, at 3.5 million jobs.)

Retail sales jobs are pretty evenly spread out: 32% of workers are millennials, 29% are gen Xers, and 22% are baby boomers, leaving about 17% for 14- to 21-year-olds. Pay ranges from $9.40 per hour at the 25th percentile to $13.99 per hour at the 75th percentile.

Among generation X workers, registered nurses slightly surpass retail salespersons for the most jobs—1.43 million to 1.38 million. Half of all RNs are aged 35 to 54, and at the median level, they make more than $5 more per hour than at the 25th percentile ($33.83 to $28.46).

Other prominent gen X jobs:

  • General and operations managers (58% of jobs in this occupation, or 1.3 million, are filled by gen Xers).

  • Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers (53% are gen Xers)

  • First-line supervisors of office and administrative support workers (53%)

  • Financial managers (55%)

  • Software developers, applications (54%)

The bottom line: Gen Xers show up prominently in middle and senior management positions, and not just in retail or office positions. Their presence in tech, finance, and construction indicate that they hold important roles across sectors.

It’s not a stretch to say that gen Xers, most of whom are in their peak-earning years, serve as the lifeblood for many organizations.

Data for this post comes from Emsi Developer. For more on this analysis or data, email Josh Wright (