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Millennials now biggest generation in work force: Pew

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Millennials in the first quarter overtook Generation X as the largest component of the U.S. work force, according to a new report from Pew Research Center.

Pew’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data showed 53.5 million millennials in the labor force and 52.7 million Gen Xers.

Millennials passed baby boomers last year as the latter’s numbers declined because of retirement, Pew said. In the first quarter, 44.6 million boomers were working.

Pew said the 18-to-34 workforce was likely to grow further in the near future for two main reasons.

One, immigrants to the U.S. comprise a disproportionately large share of the millennial labor force. Immigrants come to the U.S. mainly in their young working years, not as children or as older adults, Pew said.

Since 2010, more than half of newly arrived immigrant workers have been millennials.

Two, a big chunk of millennials are 18 to 24 years old, the years when labor force participation is at low ebb and many are in school.

Pew looked for clues in Gen Xers’ behavior to get a fix on how many of the younger millennials would be looking for and getting jobs in the years ahead.

Gen X work force participation peaked at 84 percent in 2008, according to Pew. A decade earlier, when Gen Xers were the same age as today’s millennials, only 80 percent were in the labor force.

This suggests, Pew said, that the millennial work force has room to grow.

Diminishing work force participation

Gen Xers dominated the U.S. work force for only three years, overtaking baby boomers in 2012. That likely ended this year with the rise of millennial participation, although Pew hesitated to say so definitively.

Analysts said in the report that immigration would add some workers to the Gen X labor force.

As well, if the job market improvements continue in the post-recession era, Gen Xers will likely return to the labor market in stronger numbers.

But time is not on their side. The oldest ones are now 50, and beginning to age out of the prime 25-to-54 working years, which might counteract any potential growth in the Gen X workforce.

Pew also noted that the Census Bureau had projected that the millennial population as a whole (not just its workforce) would surpass that of baby boomers in 2015 as the U.S.’s largest living generation. Generation X is smaller, with about 66 million people in 2014, compared with about 75 million boomers and millennials.

The report said some 45 million boomers were in the labor force in the first quarter, down from a peak of 66 million in 1997. As more of this generation retires every year, and with little growth from immigration, the size of the boomer work force will continue to shrink.