For the last 40 years, America has been on a roll. Baby Boomers, raised in a competitive environment, have increased the average work week, made the two income household ubiquitous, and currently operate about 60% of the small businesses in the USA.
Boomers are what they do, and are what they own. They judge their success by position and consumption. From the standpoint of Gross Domestic Product, they have been the most impactful generation in economic history. Their parents had work/life balance. There was work, and there was life. When work ended, you came home and had a life. Boomers blurred that line, making work and life all part of an ongoing daily cycle.
They have been a productivity machine, especially in small business. Generating income requires time, and time is a static commodity. Every week has the same number of hours, so the more time you spend on generating income, the less is left for other activities. Boomers dealt with this by subcontracting many of the activities outside of income production to others.
They invented competitive parenting, hiring others to help with homework and teach their kids how to throw a ball, or dance, or play piano. Health was outsourced, with fitness centers, personal trainers, vitamins and running shoes helping to maintain wellness in a strictly limited time frame, leaving more hours each week for income production.
The chores of maintaining the McMansion were subcontracted to an industry of local small business owners, especially franchisees. Housekeeping, landscaping, oil changes and home maintenance were dealt with through the yellow pages (and then the Internet.)
The service economy, where consumer spending is 75% of the GDP, has been touted as the model for the 21st century. That norm is a society where the majority of people make a living by performing tasks for other people who are too busy performing their own tasks.
Not all of this will change. We won’t go back to fixing our cars in the front yard (too complicated) or, as my Dad did, building an addition on our home on evenings and weekends. But the velocity of money, the wealth created by millions of really hard working folks paying other millions of really hard working folks to do things for them, may be coming to an end.
When I present to business owners about the issues of The Boomer Bust I ask the younger (under 40) owners whether they are willing to work in excess of 55 hours a week for the next 20 years in order to achieve material success. Few are, yet when I ask the Boomer owners whether they still work over 55 hours a week, virtually every hand is raised.
What would happen if every Boomer reduced his or her work week to 40 hours today? As a coach to business owners, I encourage them to flip the control the business has over them, and take more time for themselves. Some do, some don’t, but even those who are successful at it seldom get to a mere 40 hours. They may work from home one day a week, or take more frequent vacations, but actually not working isn’t in most’s DNA.
The driven work ethic of the Boomers isn’t replicated in the succeeding generations. If we are honest, it wasn’t there in the preceding generations, either. The Boomers are an anomaly, entering the workforce in huge numbers, and creating opportunities for each other as a byproduct of those numbers. We will look back on the era of “Boomers serving Boomers” as a golden age for US consumption.
GenX and the Millennials may return to a simpler time, but they had better learn how to hammer a nail. We haven’t yet figured out an economic model that couples lower productivity with higher disposable income.