Is Gen X to blame for the driver shortage? And could Millennials be the solution?

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Updated Jul 11, 2018
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With the trucking industry in the throes of a severe driver shortage, fleet owners understandably might feel more like they are in the business of recruiting drivers rather than the business of hauling freight.

The number of truck drivers in the United States has held relatively steady over the last 20 years, hovering somewhere between 3 million and 3.5 million. Meanwhile, outside of an 18-month period during the 2008-09 recession, tonnage has increased steadily, as measured by the American Trucking Associations’ Truck Tonnage Index.

From lifestyle and lower wages to minimum age requirements and image problems, there is no end to the factors affecting the supply of drivers to the industry. But perhaps the easiest explanation, and ultimately the solution to the problem, lies in the study of demographics.

Eighty million Americans born from 1945 to 1964 make up the Baby Boomer generation. Ranging from 54 to 73 years old, this group rapidly is aging into retirement. ATA estimates the industry must add nearly 450,000 new drivers in the next decade just to keep pace with retirement attrition.

The labor shortage problem lies with Generation X, says Ken Gronbach, demographer, futurist and author of “Upside: Profiting from the Profound Demographic Shifts Ahead”. “Generation X will never perform at the level of the Baby Boomers because there are fewer of them,” he said during a keynote address at the 2018 CCJ Symposium in Hilton Head, S.C.

Twelve percent fewer, to be exact. The United States produced only 69 million babies during Gen X’s span from 1965 to 1984, creating what Gronbach calls “a hole in the middle of our population.”
If Gen X’s relative lack of size and subsequent shallow labor pool is to blame for the current driver shortage, what is the solution?

Gronbach believes the driver void will be filled by Generation Y. Also referred to as Millennials, a whopping 86 million people make up this group born from 1985 to 2004. With ages between 14 to 33 years old, many in Gen Y are just now entering the U.S. workforce.

“You are going to have a talent pool for drivers like you can’t believe,” Gronbach told symposium attendees. “They are the largest generation ever born in the United States, and many of them don’t even drive yet.”

While smaller in size, most of Gen X currently makes up what Gronbach refers to as the “heavy lifters” of the U.S. economy — people from 40 to 60 years old who are the highest earners and highest spenders. As Gen Y’s population begins to mature, its massive size also will create great demand for goods and services.

Most of the population in Gen Y (Millennials) are the children of Baby Boomers, meaning much of the country’s two largest generations still live under one roof, but Gronbach notes the country will need to build 25 million housing units just to meet the inevitable demand as Gen Y moves away from home.

“I recommend you capitalize, hire and train, because there is a wave of people and a market headed toward you that is going to need stuff moved like you can’t believe,” said Gronbach. “You’re in a business that is going to be influenced by the largest generation ever to come of age, and they are headed right at you.”

And as Baby Boomers retire and replace the Silent Generation – born from 1925 to 1944 and the smallest generation in the last 100 years – they will redefine eldercare as we know it today. “[The Silent Generation] has given us a totally screwed-up image of what it means to be elderly,” said Gronbach. “Our elderly population is going to explode with the Baby Boomers, and you need to anticipate that, because it is going to change markets.”

Baby Boomers also will drive large population spikes in states in the Southeast and Southwest, while populations in the Midwest and Northeast states will remain stagnant. “Baby Boomers are tired of the cold,” said Gronbach, “and the lion’s share of them are starting to retire now.”