The Heterogeneous Workforce Isn’t New – It’s Just Back


A current hot topic among HR experts and business consultants is the heterogeneous workforce. It seems everyone is talking about how the modern workplace is now staffed by four separate generations of workers. But if you take a look at history, you discover something interesting: the heterogeneous workforce isn’t new. It is just back.

A wise king Solomon once said that there was nothing new under the sun. What did he mean by that? He meant that the things we believe, practice, pursue, etc. are constantly being recycled. He was right.

We tend to think of the heterogeneous workforce as a new concept. But that is only because our understanding of history doesn’t go much beyond our own experiences and what our parents told us of theirs. We need to go back to the turn of the 20th century to see that the heterogeneous workforce is actually a fairly old concept.

  • It’s Retirement That’s New

A key marker of a heterogeneous workforce is multiple generations working side-by-side. In the grand scheme of things, such a workforce is the norm. It has been observed throughout history. What is new is the retirement concept. With the exception of the military and some political positions, retirement was virtually unheard of until the industrial age.

Before factories introduced the world to mass production and organized manufacturing, more than half of all American workers were involved in agriculture. Family farms dominated. Furthermore, nearly 80% of the men in this country worked well past age 65. They slowed down and didn’t work as hard, but they continued working until they either died or it was physically impossible for them to do so.

  • Factories Changed Everything

Moving from farm to factory is what changed everything. Factories were all about efficiency. They still are. The goal is to push out as much as possible in the least amount of time. Unfortunately, the industrialists of the early 20th century decided older workers were incapable of keeping up and began forcing them out of the workplace. Thus, the retirement concept was born.

Even so, it took a while for the retirement mindset to kick in. Family farms continued operating the way they always had. Family-run businesses continued to employ multiple generations. It wasn’t until the postwar era that retirement became a modern expectation.

  • We Have Come Full Circle

Most of us are familiar with retirement thanks to our grandparents and parents. But now we are seeing a return to the heterogeneous workforce. In essence, we have come full circle. We have returned to a concept that previous pre-industrial generations were intimately familiar with.

So what is driving the trend? It is mostly economics. Older workers who failed to set aside resources for retirement simply cannot afford to stop working. Social Security doesn’t pay them enough.

It should be noted that the heterogeneous workforce isn’t defined just by age. We are also seeing heterogeny in terms of different types of workers. In a recent blog post discussing heterogeneity in the workplace, Dallas-based BenefitMall pointed out the prevalence of gig workers in the modern workforce.

  • More Opportunities for More People

What we are seeing is a new workplace environment that offers more opportunities for more people. Whether it is a young worker who decides to make a career of gig work or independent contracting, or older Americans foregoing retirement to continue working into their 70s or 80s, plenty of opportunities are there to be had.

All of this is fascinating to a culture that has grown used to the retirement concept. But it is by no means new. The heterogeneous workforce is as old as humanity itself.