Big Generation Gaps in Work Attitudes Revealed

Experiences help to shape life, so it's reasonable to think someone who grew up when John F. Kennedy was shot might have a different worldview than a person who witnessed Enron collapse and has been "wired" since just a tot.

New survey research announced today suggests indeed that is the case: Large generational gaps exist, particularly when it comes to work attitudes. The findings reveal young people just entering the workforce, often called GenMe or Millennials, are more likely than their elders to value leisure time over work and to place a premium on rewards such as higher salaries and status.

"Our results show that the desire for leisure and a better work-life balance starts long before young workers have families, so companies will have to consider new policies for younger people who want leisure time to travel or spend with friends," said Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Of course, the generation itself may have to adapt their expectations if they want both higher salaries and more time off."

The findings have implications for managers wanting to attract and retain GenMe-ers, while also adding real data to back up or in some cases counter claims made about how GenX differs from the baby boomers who differ from the Millennials.

"There have been lots of books and articles on how the generations differ, but up to this point there's been little data," Twenge told LiveScience. "Up to this point it's been mostly speculation."

Who's who

Twenge and her colleagues analyzed data from a larger study called Monitoring the Future, which has surveyed a nationally representative sample of high-school seniors every year since 1976. The new research involved more than 16,500 students who had answered questions about work attitudes during the years 1976 (Boomers), 1991 (GenX) and 2006 (GenMe).

Here's a breakdown of each generational group:

  • Baby boomers – born between 1946 and 1964; affected by the civil rights and women's movements, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and Watergate.
  • GenX – born between 1965 and 1981; experienced the AIDS epidemic, economic uncertainty, and the fall of the Soviet Union. They were much more likely to witness their parents get a divorce or lose a job due to downsizing than any prior generation, the researchers say.
  • GenMe – born between 1982 and 1999; watched several iconic companies, such as Enron, TYCO, Arthur Andersen, collapse due to unethical leadership.

Generation personalities

Results of the new research suggested vacation and other leisure time have increasingly become more important over time, with GenMe placing significantly greater emphasis on it relative to the other two generational groups. Nearly twice as many people in the GenMe group rated having a job with more than two weeks of vacation as "very important" than did Boomers.

Just 23 percent of Boomers agreed that "work is just making a living," compared with 34 percent of GenMe respondents. Three-fourths of Boomers said they expected work to be a central part of their lives, compared with 63 percent of GenMe respondents.

Contrary to the idea that Milennials want to find meaning in their work, results showed few generational differences in so-called intrinsic work values, such as having an interesting, results-oriented job, and social values such as making friends. When asked how important it is to have a job where you have the chance to be creative, 41 percent of GenMe students said that was "very important," compared with 36 percent and 38 percent of Boomers  and GenXers who said the same, respectively.

The youngest age group was also no more likely to want to help others and society through their work than other generations. The assumption that GenMe employees care about volunteerism and social issues has spurred many companies to let workers volunteer on company time as a way to attract this generation, the researchers said.

Forty-four percent of GenMe students said it is "very important" to have a job that provides an opportunity to help others, while 46 percent of GenX and 50 percent of baby boomers reported the same.

A bunch of narcissists?

In some respects, GenMe seems to want to have their cake and eat it too. That is they want high pay and status but aren't as interested in burning the midnight oil. "Given that GenMe values extrinsic rewards more than Boomers did, the combination of not wanting to work hard but still wanting more money and status verifies the sense of entitlement many have identified among GenMe," the researchers write in an article published online this month by the Journal of Management.

The fact that GenMe individuals tend to dislike working overtime while also expecting higher status and compensation at work shows a disconnect between their expectations and reality, one that indicates a sense of overconfidence and even narcissism, said Twenge, who is also an author of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement" (Free Press, 2009) and "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before" (Free Press, 2007).

Twenge's past research showed parents are choosing less common baby names, another sign of a need for individualism and possibly narcissism.

For companies wanting to attract the vibrant Millennials, Twenge suggests making creative workplace adjustments such as flexible hours and other perks like those touted by Google and other companies (dog-friendly offices, an on-site doctor and free use of laundry machines).

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.