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Implications of an Aging Workforce

As more and more baby boomers retire, employers must learn to understand the motivations and desires of the younger generation of workers taking their place.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Generational Differences in Work Values: Leisure and Extrinsic Values Increasing, Social and Intrinsic Values Decreasing
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Jean M. Twenge (San Diego State University) et al.

Journal of Management, vol. 36, no. 5

Date Published: 
September 2010

The generation gap could pose something of a challenge for employers. As the baby boomer generation eases into retirement age, companies are faced with the prospect of recruiting and retaining younger employees to replace an estimated 75 million departing older workers. Companies will have to understand the changing work values of the younger generation, which has been characterized in numerous media reports as being altruistic or focused on the social benefits of the activities in which they get involved. Indeed, many companies have tried to attract young workers by emphasizing their organization’s commitment to the environment or by introducing extensive charitable programs that offer paid time for community service.

Yet this study found that members of earlier generations sought socially meaningful and personally fulfilling jobs with the potential for lasting relationships more than their younger counterparts. In fact, because of persistent company downsizing in recent years, young workers place little value on teamwork and company loyalty and see their jobs as merely a means to make a living; they like their leisure time, want more vacations, and don’t want to be under a lot of pressure at work, according to this study.

The researchers used surveys of more than 15,000 American high school seniors conducted by the University of Michigan in 1976, 1991, and 2006 on a wide range of job-related attitudes. Because the study measured three different groups at the same stage in their lives — at an age when work values are generally fully formed, according to prior studies — the researchers were able to isolate generational differences in job attitudes that had nothing to do with respondents’ demographics, such as age or work experiences. The samples covered baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Gen X (born in the late 1960s and 1970s), and Generation Me (born in the 1980s and ’90s, also known as millennials or Gen Y). The study found that the desire for leisure time has steadily increased over the three generations. And although millennials view work as less central to their lives, they also crave large salaries and high-status positions (although not to the extent that Gen Xers do). As for the meaning of work, 34 percent of millennials concurred that jobs are “just [for] making a living,” whereas only 23 percent of boomers held this belief.

As work comes to occupy an ever more peripheral role in employees’ lives, the study points to several implications for companies. When conditions are right, managers should consider granting increased time off for employees, which can also be beneficial for companies during recession periods. Several leading companies have recently acted to incorporate leisure elements into the work schedule, likely as a sop to their younger workers and to encourage employee retention: Google offers on-site laundry and massages, eBay has meditation rooms, and the accounting firm KPMG offers its employees five weeks of paid time off in their first year. In addition, high-stress firms with leaders or founders from the boomer generation could face a difficult task in integrating the more casual attitudes that their younger employees have toward their jobs into the organization’s go-getter culture. Numerous studies have shown that when the work values of new employees and company leaders diverge, new employees can become negative and undermine the firm’s performance, increasing the likelihood of costly and inefficient turnover.

Bottom Line:
As baby boomers move into retirement, companies will have to consider ways to attract and retain a new generation of workers who value leisure time more but have less appetite for hard work and career paths that help others.

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