The U.S. workforce is becoming more diverse by race, ethnicity and age — but companies aren’t keeping up

Adia Harvey Wingfield is Professor of Sociology, Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.


Increased immigration, longer life expectancies, and declining birth rates are transforming the US workforce in two important ways. The people who fuel this nation’s economy include far more people of color and workers over the age of 55 than there were four decades ago.

And that diversity will continue to grow in the coming years, economists predict.

The share of U.S. workers who are nonwhite, Latino or both nearly doubled to about 40% in 2019 from about 23% in 1979, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With more seniors remaining economically active, more than 37 million US workers are 55 and older today. They represent nearly 1 in 4 of the 160 million Americans engaged in paid work. In 1979, fewer than 1 in 7 US workers were in this age group.

The BLS predicts that the ranks of older workers will continue to grow in the coming years – including people well past their golden years. The number of Americans 75 and older remaining in the workforce will nearly double between 2020 and 2030, while the number of all workers is growing by only 5.5 percent, according to the bureau.

The share of white workers will have fallen to 74.7 percent by 2031, from 77 percent in 2021, the bureau predicts.

The agency also tracks the prevalence of Hispanic workers who can identify as white, black or mixed race. It says the share of such workers will rise over this decade to 21.5% from 18.3% of the workforce – up sharply from 12.1% in 2001.

How are US employers responding to these changes?

I am a sociologist who studies how racial and ethnic inequality persists in professional occupations. One potential consequence I expect to see is that employers are forced to do a better job of attracting and retaining underrepresented and older workers through diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.


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Diversity initiatives are already widespread

It is already very common for employers to take diversity, equality and inclusion meters. A 2019 survey of 234 companies found that nearly 2 in 3 employed diversity managers.

Their responsibilities can vary widely. Some examples include creating a culture that values ​​and welcomes employees from diverse backgrounds and increasing the number of employees from backgrounds that are underrepresented in a particular field.

In finance, that might mean attracting more female, black and Latino analysts. In nursing, that could mean attracting more men of all races to a profession still dominated by white women.

In these areas and others, changing the culture may mean collecting data on which workers are underrepresented, trying to fill any gaps identified, or revising dress code. care codes which prohibit hairstyles more commonly worn by black workers.


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2 common but inappropriate strategies

Unfortunately, many companies use diversity strategies that have not been proven to work.

These may include mandatory diversity training, often in the form of professional webinars or workshops with interactive exercises.

Diversity training is supposed to make people better at working and interacting with colleagues and clients with cultural backgrounds that differ from their own. But it often fails to do so.

One complication is that employees resent feeling controlled.

Another is that they might see this compulsory education as a waste of their time. And there is evidence to suggest that it may even be counterproductive by reinforcing rather than breaking down stereotypes and alienating black workers.

The other strategy that is more common than it should be is the use of skills tests that job applicants must pass as a condition of employment. In technology, for example, a skills test could mean that candidates are asked to solve a specific problem so that hiring managers can objectively assess their skills as well as their ability to work cohesively with a team.

The problem with skills tests is that hiring managers often weight the results of these tests differently for black and white workers because of a number of biases, some of which they may not be aware of.

Recent research also shows that none of these popular approaches lead companies to make their workforces more racially diverse through their hiring practices.

I believe employers use these strategies anyway because they are easy, widespread and popular. Companies may go with what they’ve used in the past instead of trying something new.

Fortunately, new research shows more successful strategies.

What seems to work best

Employers can respond to the demographic realities of today and tomorrow by changing the way they handle hiring. They can start by hiring more workers from historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving universities and institutions.

A promising strategy to help retain workers of color is to develop mentoring programs that are open to all rather than by invitation only. In this way, implicit biases do not exclude workers of color.

Companies can also implement what is known as “up-skilling”.

Employees on upskilling programs try out a variety of different roles in the organization. This strategy helps develop underrepresented employee skill sets and connects them with managers who might otherwise overlook them.


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Older workers and those coming of age

The aging of the workforce is particularly pronounced in certain sectors of the economy. While the median age of a US worker was 42.2 in 2022, it was 55.6 for bus drivers and 49.9 for librarians.

The prevalence of older workers in these jobs means that some employers will have to pay attention to what these workers need in order to retain the staff they need.

These changes could include the app phased retirement options – that is, allowing workers to gradually leave full-time work with the freedom to work part-time for several years before leaving the workforce altogether.

It is also a good idea to strengthen measures that protect these workers from age discrimination – which is common despite being illegal.

Older workers often find themselves mocked, harassed and bullied. They also miss out on raises, promotions and other opportunities.


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But employers should not adjust their expectations to meet only the needs of older workers. A growing proportion of workers under the age of 40 also have their own requirements.

These workers, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, are more open with their bosses about their preferences for the balance of family and professional life than their colleagues who are 50 years and older.

Many workers in their 20s or 30s reject a work model that requires them to be on-call and available at all hours, requires a rigid schedule, and constantly makes demanding demands on employees. They want jobs that allow them to engage more fully with their families and in leisure activities.

Employers may have no alternatives

Ultimately, the greater diversity of the workforce in terms of age, race and ethnicity may force employers to change at least some of their ways.

As workers born after 1990 age, employers may have to try harder to accommodate their preferences – especially as they look to replace older workers who retire or switch to part-time work.

Whether by design or necessity, I believe employers will hire executives who are more racially and ethnically diverse. Furthermore, I predict that they may have no choice but to let their workers have more flexibility and freedom.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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