Posted: 24 Jul. 2019 10 min. read

Just how significant are generational differences in shaping workplace attitudes and job satisfaction?

The topic of generational differences in the workplace has attracted significant attention. We may know this, for example, as the difference between Millennials and Generation X workers within the workplace, or the need to tailor workplace practices to cater to employees of specific generations.

These opinions and practices, however, rely on the assumption that there are differences in the workplace satisfaction and attitudes of the distinct generations within the workforce today. These practices also rest on the assumption that each generation carries with it a set of traits, preferences and aspirations that uniquely shape their ability to adapt to the workplace practices in place.

Psychologists, Dr Jeffrey Cucina (US Customs and Border Protection), Dr Kevin Byle (US Customs and Border Protection), Dr Nicholas Martin (Aon, US), Sharron Peyton (US Secret Service) and Dr Ilene Gast (US Customs and Border Protection), aimed to investigate whether there are generational differences in workplace attitudes and job satisfaction. They reasoned that the shared events and experiences of a generation shape a person’s attitudes, which is likely to highlight generational differences. Previous research has had a stronger focus on workplace behaviours and has yielded mixed findings in relation to generational differences (Twenge, 2010; Cennamo & Gardner, 2008).

Aim

Dr Cucina and his team aimed to investigate whether there are generational differences in workplace attitudes, and whether Millennials have lower job satisfaction. The research team conducted two studies using large samples sizes to investigate this.

Method

Study one
: In study one, the researchers investigated the relationship between generational differences and employee attitudes by examining factors commonly linked to differences between generations. They used data from a Federal government-wide employee survey administered across six different years. Sample sizes ranged from 40,168 to 633,206 across the study period. A set of 59 items covering a range of job attitudes (i.e. satisfaction, engagement, organisational climate) were administered each year.

Study two
: The purpose of study two was to understand whether the findings from study one would hold true across time in a sample of 12,698 workers from both private and public sectors. In this study, the researchers compared job satisfaction for a sample of high school students measured each year from 1980 to 2012. The study also gathered data from the participants’ offspring about their job satisfaction.

Findings

Although statistically significant, the two studies found only marginal differences between generations on workplace attitudes and job satisfaction:

  1. In study one, Millennials did score slightly less than Baby Boomers and Generation X on some job attitude items, such as personal accomplishment (d = -0.17 and -0.14 respectively, p < .05) and enjoying the work they do (d = -0.30 and -0.28 respectively, p < .05). However, when looking at job attitudes collectively, Millennials scored slightly higher than Baby Boomers and Generation X (d = 0.11 and 0.10 respectively, p < .05).
  2. Study two showed that children of Baby Boomers and Generation X did have lower job satisfaction than their parents. However, this was not a large difference.
  3. Generational differences only explained 2% of the variance in workplace attitudes, suggesting that most differences in workplace attitudes arose within, rather than between, generations.


Implications

Differences between generations on employee attitudes about their work and work satisfaction may not be as significant as assumed. The findings from these studies suggest that generational differences in workplace attitudes are small, warranting caution and scepticism when considering the root cause of variances and differences in the workplace. Heightening generational differences within the workplace has the potential to increase conflict, enhance already stereotypical attitudes towards each generation, and result in investment in workplace programs that cater to differences that may not be as significant.

Based on the findings from these studies, a more critical and evidence-driven approach to generational differences is recommended. Specifically, strategies aimed at reducing stereotypical assumptions about different cohorts of workers, and providing the support that focuses on individual determinants of job satisfaction rather than generational determinants, is likely to improve perceptions and workplace attitudes.

To read the full article, see Cucina, J. M., Byle, K A., Martin, N. R., Peyton, S. T., & Gast, I. F., (2018). Generational differences in workplace attitudes and job satisfaction: Lack of sizable differences across cohorts. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 33(3), 246-264.

References

Twenge, J.M. (2010). A review of the empirical evidence on generational differences in work attitudes. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(2), 201-210.

Cennamo, L., Gardner, D. (2008) Generational differences in work values, outcomes and person-organisation values fit. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(8), 891-906.

For more information, contact Gagan Kaur

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