A Baby Boomer, a Millennial, and a member of Generation X walk into a bar. Which one of them is most likely to be there despite the fact that their boss asked them to stay and work overtime?
Newly published research provides an answer to that question, but it also suggests we shouldn’t take such generation-based generalizations all that seriously.
A research team led by John Bret Becton of the University of Southern Mississippi finds some differences in work-related attitudes between the three generations that currently dominate the American workforce, but they are surprisingly small.
“It appears the effects of generational membership on workplace behavior are not as strong as suggested by commonly held stereotypes,” the researchers write in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
"We found that participants from older generations generally reported being fired fewer times than younger generations. If age alone influenced results, we would expect the opposite, because older generations have been in the workforce longer, and have had more opportunities to be fired."
Becton and his colleagues begin their paper by summarizing those stereotypes. Baby Boomers (born 1945-64) are "achievement oriented," "loyal and attached to organizations," and "diligent on the job." Members of Generation X (born 1965-79) are "individualistic, distrustful of corporations, lacking in loyalty." Millennials (born in 1980 or later) have "a strong desire for meaningful work," but also "value leisure more than other generations."
To get some idea of the validity of such generalizations, the researchers examined the applications of 8,128 people seeking employment for various positions at two hospitals in the American Southeast. Twenty percent were Baby Boomers, 61 percent Gen Xers, and nearly 19 percent Millennials.
The factors they looked at included how many jobs the person had held in the past five years; the longest they had ever spent in one job; whether they had ever been fired; and, as mentioned earlier, their willingness to work overtime.
The data indicated that, as the researchers theorized, Baby Boomers stayed in their jobs longer, and had fewer jobs overall, than members of either of the younger cohorts.
“When comparing individuals of the same gender and relative age,” the researchers write, “Gen Xers spent, on average, 24.16 fewer months on the job than Boomers, while Millennials spent, on average, 50.21 fewer months on the job than Boomers.”
As for our bar joke: “Gen Xers are less likely to work overtime as compared to Boomers and Millennials.” Interestingly, the researchers found no significant differences on that issue between the youngest and oldest cohorts, but members of the group in the middle were more likely to balk at requests to work late.
The researchers concede that these numbers may reflect, at least in part, the stage of life members of each generation currently inhabits. That said, however, “at least some of the differences cannot be explained simply by age,” they write.
“For example, we found that participants from older generations generally reported being fired fewer times than younger generations. If age alone influenced results, we would expect the opposite, because older generations have been in the workforce longer, and have had more opportunities to be fired.”
So should employers hire more Boomers? As a member of that generation, I’m all for it, but Becton’s data finds the differences between generations on these work-related issues were, in fact, quite small.
“Our results suggest that organizations should be cautious in taking the advice of some scholars to implement HR strategies that recognize the unique values and characteristics of each generation,” they conclude.
“Organizations may be better served by designing greater flexibility into HR practices and strategies in order to address the needs and values of all employees, regardless of generational cohort.”