Saturday, August 07, 2010

Generational differences in work values: Fact or fiction?

There's been a lot written over the years about so-called "generational differences" among different age groups--e.g., Baby Boomers, Gen X, and GenMe (i.e., Gen Y, Millennials, Net Generation). Various authors have claimed important differences, such as GenMe valuing altruistic employers and social experiences much more than, say, Boomers. Take a look at the business section of your local bookstore and you're sure to find examples.

The problem isn't with the issue--if there truly are differences, they would have important implications for attracting and retaining different segments of the workforce. The problem is with the data.

Turns out most of the previous research is either qualitative (anecdotes) or based on cross-sectional studies done at a single point of time. The problem with these studies is they make it impossible to separate generational differences from career stage differences. In other words, younger applicants/employees may indeed differ from older ones at any point in time--but that could be purely due to factors that impact one's age, not factors related to being born or experiencing a particular point in time.

Luckily for us, in the September issue of the Journal of Management, Twenge, et al. report the results of a longitudinal study that allows us to answer these generational questions with some authority.

The authors used data collected from a nationally representative sample of over 16,000 U.S. high school seniors taken in 1976, 1991, and 2006 (from the Monitoring The Future project).

The results may surprise you. Let's look at each of the work values studied by the authors:

Leisure (e.g., vacation, work-life balance): This became progressively more important over the generations, with GenMe valuing it the most. The difference between GenMe and Boomers was the largest reported in the study (d>.50).

Intrinsic (e.g., interesting and challenging work): While GenY did not differ significantly from Boomers, GenMe were significantly less likely to value this compared to either GenY or Boomers.

Altruistic (e.g., ability to help others and society): While it's commonly reported that GenMe values this more highly than previous generations, results did not support this. No significant differences were found between the three groups.

Social (e.g., job gives feeling of belonging and being connected): This is another area where some have suggested that with the skyrocketing success of sites like Facebook, the younger generations more highly value--indeed, insist on--a workplace that allows social interaction. The results? Not so much. In fact, GenMe placed less value on this compared to both GenY and Boomers.

Extrinsic (e.g., job pays highly or is prestigious). This is an interesting example of non-linearity. Turns out this value peaked with GenY. While GenMe valued this more than Boomers, the difference was more pronounced between Boomers and GenY.

Among the items with the biggest differences were:

- GenMe valuing having 2+ weeks of vacation compared to Boomers
- Boomers valuing a job that allows you to make friends compared to GenMe
- GenY valuing having a job with prestige/status compared to Boomers
- GenMe reporting that work is just a way to make a living compared to Boomers
- GenX valuing being able to participate in decision making compared to Boomers

Overall, intrinsic reward items had the highest means across the generations, with a job that is "interesting" having the highest item mean. Altruistic and social values were also valued more highly, with extrinsic rewards having lower mean values and leisure rewards having the lowest.

The authors summarize the results by saying the data suggest "small to moderate generational differences." If you aren't surprised, kudos to your observational skills. At the very least this is important data to consider when evaluating your recruiting and retention efforts. And it certainly calls into question some of the conclusions being drawn in the popular press.

By the way, a full version of the article is available (at least it was at the time I published this) here.

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