Generational Differences in Work Values

Generational Differences in Work Values: Leisure and Extrinsic Values Increasing, Social and Intrinsic Values Decreasing”, by Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University, Stacy M. Campbell of Kennesaw State University, Brian J. Hoffman and Charles E. Lance, both of the University of Georgia, was one of the most frequently read articles in the Journal of Management in 2010. Here is a brief personal perspective from one of the authors, Jean M. Twenge:  

The large accounting firm Ernst & Young pays employees to volunteer. KPMG offers 5 weeks of paid time off a year for new hires. Google offers onsite massages.

American companies are spending millions, if not billions, adapting to the young generation of workers born after 1980 (known variously as Millennials, GenY, or GenMe), often calling on the many books and consulting firms purporting to describe generational differences.

 Yet few of these programs and observations are based on empirical research, and virtually none compare data over time, a necessary step to separate the effects of age and generation.

 A personality psychologist by training, I was very young myself – 22 – when I first began researching generational differences in 1994. That research showed significant increases in individualistic traits over time, leading me to write Generation Me (2006, Free Press). But I was often asked about the practical applications – how, for example, did these differences impact the workplace?

I was looking for items for another project when I stumbled across questions about work values in a large survey of young people that began in 1976. This over-time data meant we could hone in on generational differences without the confound of age or career stage.

We found that GenMe rated leisure and vacation time as significantly more important than Boomers and GenX’ers did at the same age. However, there were virtually no generational differences in altruistic values (such as wanting a job that is worthwhile to society). So the massages and paid time off are good incentives, but being paid to volunteer will be no more popular than it was 15 or 30 years ago. My co-authors and I hope that companies who are recruiting and managing young workers will find these evidence-based findings helpful in separating truth from fiction in the anecdote-dominated field of generational differences.

The scientific perspective is also useful for quantifying the differences. In brief, they are large enough to matter (often around a half a standard deviation across 30 years), but not so large that the generations can’t work together. So those who claim that there are no generational differences are wrong, but so are those who say that GenMe is starkly different in nearly every way. As so often happens, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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