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Abstract

Purpose This introduction seeks to provide a brief background to the notion that there are generational differences at work and to introduce the papers included in this special issue of the Journal of Managerial Psychology . Design/methodology/approach The current context concerning generational differences at work is briefly outlined followed by a description of the core theory underpinning the notion of generational cohorts. Criticisms of this theoretical premise are provided before a brief outline is given to each article in the special issue. Findings There is evidence for changes in personality profiles across generations, and for differences in attitudes towards work and careers. However, effect sizes tend not to be large, and some findings are inconsistent with popular stereotypes regarding generational differences. Little support was found for differences in work values or motivation. Practical implications Contrary to popular hype concerning generational differences at work, managerial time may be better spent considering employee needs relating to age (maturity), life‐cycle and career stage differences than developing generationally specific management policies and practices. Significant methodological problems remain in generational research. Originality/value The papers facilitate a critical understanding of the challenges facing generational research and its limitations, and provide a litmus test against which popular stereotypes can be compared.
GUEST EDITORIAL
Generational differences at work:
introduction and overview
Keith Macky
Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Auckland, New Zealand
Dianne Gardner
Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand, and
Stewart Forsyth
FX Consultants, Auckland, New Zealand
Abstract
Purpose This introduction seeks to provide a brief background to the notion that there are
generational differences at work and to introduce the papers included in this special issue of the
Journal of Managerial Psychology.
Design/methodology/approach – The current context concerning generational differences at
work is briefly outlined followed by a description of the core theory underpinning the notion of
generational cohorts. Criticisms of this theoretical premise are provided before a brief outline is given
to each article in the special issue.
Findings There is evidence for changes in personality profiles across generations, and for
differences in attitudes towards work and careers. However, effect sizes tend not to be large, and some
findings are inconsistent with popular stereotypes regarding generational differences. Little support
was found for differences in work values or motivation.
Practical implications – Contrary to popular hype concerning generational differences at work,
managerial time may be better spent considering employee needs relating to age (maturity), life-cycle
and career stage differences than developing generationally specific management policies and
practices. Significant methodological problems remain in generational research.
Originality/value – The papers facilitate a critical understanding of the challenges facing
generational research and its limitations, and provide a litmus test against which popular stereotypes
can be compared.
Keywords Baby boomer generation, Age groups, Personality, Careers, Motivation (psychology),
Workplace
Paper type Conceptual paper
Newspaper stories, consultant press releases, magazine articles, and increasingly
books are not hard to find exhorting that there are different generational cohorts in the
workforce, such as Generations X, Y and Baby Boomers, that differ from each other in
ways that are important for managers. Often such reports seem little more than overly
generalised and oft repeated stereotypes based either on anecdotal evidence, or data
not otherwise open to critical peer review. References to Generation Y, also sometimes
referred to as Echo Boomers, the Millennium Generation, Generation Next and
Generation Why (Sheahan, 2006a), seem particularly common (e.g. Sheahan, 2006b;
Hira, 2007). For example:
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Journal of Managerial Psychology
Vol. 23 No. 8, 2008
pp. 857-861
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
0268-3946
DOI 10.1108/02683940810904358
Generation Y workers. They can be fickle, high maintenance and have a sense of entitlement.
But they are also technologically sophisticated and breathe life into a stodgy old company ...
They are team players, good in collaborative work environments ... Having been praised all
their lives this generation can’t deal with failure ... They expect acknowledgement even
when they don’t deserve it ...They want to be put on the fast-track whether they deserve it or
not ... They dislike working long hours (Clement, 2008, p. F7).
Rarely do such generalisations seem to be challenged, or even the basic assumption
that there are generational differences questioned, although there are exceptions.
Giancola (2006) for example observes a lack of published research on generational
differences in academic journals and suggests that “the generational approach may be
more popular culture than social science” (p. 33).
Furthermore, the empirical research that does exist is not a good fit with stereotypes
about generational differences. For example, a study by Montana and Lenaghan (1999)
compared four generational groups and found that generations X and Y were identical in
ratings of their top six work motivators, as were the “baby boomer” and “pre-boomer”
generations. The highest motivators for the X and Y cohorts were steady employment
and promotional opportunities, while steady employment did not make it into the top six
of the boomer and pre-boomer generations. In a comprehensive Australian study (Hart
et al., 2003), the pattern of relationships linking leadership, organisational climate and
work attitudes such as commitment were found to be similar across Generation X and
Baby Boomer employees. Another Australasian study (Levy et al., 2005) also found little
difference in attitudes toward leadership of Generation X and Y followers. Finally, one
study that did report generational differences (Jurkiewicz, 2000) found these to be
contrary to stereotypes on generational differences.
But why should one generation differ from another in ways that matter to
managers? As a construct, a generational cohort refers to an “identifiable group that
shares birth years, age location, and significant life events at critical developmental
stages” (Kupperschmidt, 2000, p. 66). Differences between generations are theorised to
occur because of major influences in the environment within which early human
socialization occurs; influences that impact on the development of personality, values,
beliefs and expectations that, once formed, are stable into adulthood. Of particular
significance to the generational approach are major shifts in the sociocultural
environment over time; highly salient events that one generation experiences but
another either does not, or experiences them outside of their critical socialisation years
(Noble and Schewe, 2003; O’Guinn and Shrum, 1997; Twenge, 2000). These potential
salient sociocultural events are numerous indeed, including wars and the consequences
of wars (Noble and Schewe, 2003), new technologies resulting in major life and work
changes in the developed economies, and significant changes to family and work
patterns (Layard and Mincer, 1985). Major political events may also be important, such
as the Cold War and threat of nuclear armageddon, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the
break-up of the Soviet Union. Also potentially influential are major socioeconomic
transitions, such as the relatively recent rise of corporate multinational capitalism,
periodic share market collapses, depressions and sustained recessions, pervading
unemployment rates, and the loss of job security through the 1980s-1990s due to
downsizings, restructurings, privatisations, and more recently offshoring.
Socioeconomic events resulting in either relative scarcity or security may be
particularly salient for generational differences (Egri and Ralston, 2004). As each
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generation matures though such events, then so each generation is purported to
develop characteristics that differentiate it from those that precede and follow it;
characteristics that will be reflected in personality traits, work values, attitudes, and
motivations to work in ways presumed to be important to managers (Kupperschmidt,
2000; Smola and Sutton, 2002).
This core theoretical premise underpinning generational differences is not however
without criticism. There are, for example, problems in determining the exact temporal
point at which to segregate the various generations (and some differences between studies
on this, although the default option seems to be the Strauss and Howe (1991) typology).
Nor can it be assumed that all members of any given generation will experience the same
key sociocultural or socioeconomic events in the same way (Giancola, 2006); that is,
independent of social class, gender, ethnicity, or national culture, for example.
Furthermore, as many of the contributors to this special issue comment on, and Rhodes
(1983) long ago identified, it is difficult to separate out differences attributed to
generational cohort membership from what may in fact be differences arising from age
(maturity), career or life-cycle stage. Concomitant with age are organizational tenure
differences giving rise to variable organizational experiences, which also impact on many
of the attitudinal variables of interest to generational researchers and commentators.
It is against this background of widespread public acceptance, but limited empirical
and theoretical endeavour, that we invited conceptual and empirical scholarly
contributions to the generational discourse. We begin this special issue with a major
review by Twenge and Campbell of data collected from over 1.4 million people in the
USA since the 1930s, enabling generational comparisons over time on a number of
important psychological traits, including narcissism, self-esteem, anxiety and locus of
control. Observed differences across generations on such psychological dimensions are
potentially significant influences on workplace behaviour, the implications of which
for management and HR practices are drawn by the authors. Of particular note are the
observed higher levels of narcissism, anxiety and depression for Generation Y,
combined with lower needs for social approval and a stronger external locus of control.
This is followed by an empirical paper by Wong, Gardiner, Lang and Coulon analysing
data from a large Australian sample of managers and professionals using the
occupational personality questionnaire (OPQ32) and motivational questionnaire (MQ).
While Wong et al. find few meaningful generational differences in personality and
motivational drivers in the workplace for their sample, they do conclude that managers
may need to be prepared to deal with increasing levels of cynicism, negativity and less
optimism in the younger generations.
The focus then shifts from personality and motivations to Cennamo and Gardner’s
study of work attitudes and values. This is a multi-industry study of New Zealand
employees comparing Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y on their work
values, job satisfaction and organisational commitment. If major sociocultural and
socioeconomic events have the potential to influence personality development, then it is
reasonable to posit that such events might also shape generational work values. While
work attitudes are by definition affective responses to immediate or recent work
experiences, they also contain a cognitive component such that the employees’
perceptions of their work environment should be filtered by a generational lens of traits,
values, beliefs and expectations (Kupperschmidt, 2000). Attitudinal differences would
also be observable if employees from different generations are treated differently by
Guest editorial
859
managers, and or if they do have different cohort related experiences of work. Cennamo
and Gardner found that while the fit between individual and organisational work values
was related to satisfaction, organisational commitment and intentions to leave for all
generations, there were few differences in work values between generations.
Dries, Pepermans and De Kerpel then extend the idea of generational differences in
general and work-related values to explore the meaning of career success through a
generational lens. Using a Belgian sample, they found that actual career types differed
across generations while preferences for different career types and evaluations of the
factors representing career success showed few differences. Of particular note is the
value that all generational groups attached to job security, but with the oldest and
youngest generational groups placing the highest importance on this career influence.
Finally, the special issue concludes with an empirical investigation from D’Amato and
Herzfeldt of over 1,600 managers across Europe highlighting the potential for
generational cohort membership to impact on employee retention, and the role that
people’s learning orientations and intentions to engage in developing leadership
capabilities play in this relationship. Differences in learning orientation and leadership
development intentions among generation groups were found which had important
implications for organisational commitment and intentions to stay with the organisation.
They argue that, at least among managers, there may be value in generational-specific
HR practices that take into account different aims and intentions among different groups.
To conclude, the contributors to this special issue identify a number of interesting
findings regarding changes in the personality profiles across generations, and changes
in their attitudes to work and careers. However many of the empirical findings are less
strong and consistent than popular sentiment suggests. Indeed, there may be more
variation among members within a generation than there is between generations.
Significant issues remain for future studies using the generational approach to
address. In particular, and perhaps the most difficult to resolve, is to tease out the
confounding effects of age, maturation and life cycle stage on generational cohorts.
Twenge and Campbell’s study addresses this to some extent, but the cross-sectional
nature of most generational research leaves the problem unresolved. There is also
clearly room for more cross-cultural research, given the potential for variation in the
experience of sociocultural and socioeconomic events for people in different countries,
and in different strata within countries. While this issue draws on samples from the
Unites States, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, there is clearly a need for more
comparative studies to test the notion that generational cohorts are shaped by the
significant political, economic, cultural and other events of their times.
References
Clement, D. (2008), “Why businesses need Generation Y”, Weekend Herald, February 2, p. F7.
Egri, C.P. and Ralston, D.A. (2004), “Generation cohorts and personal values: a comparison of
China and the United States”, Organization Science, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 210-20.
Giancola, F. (2006), “The generation gap: more myth than reality?”, Human Resource Planning,
Vol. 29 No. 4, pp. 32-7.
Hart, P.M., Schembri, C., Bell, C.A. and Armstrong, K. (2003), “Leadership, climate, work
attitudes and commitment: is generation X really that different?”, paper presented at
Academy of Management Meeting, Seattle, Washington.
Hira, N.A. (2007), “You raised them, now manage them”, Fortune, May 28, pp. 38-47.
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Jurkiewicz, C.L. (2000), “Generation X and the public employee”, Public Personnel Management,
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Kupperschmidt, B.R. (2000), “Multigeneration employees: strategies for effective management”,
Health Care Manager, Vol. 19 No. 1, pp. 65-76.
Layard, R. and Mincer, J. (1985), “Trends in women’s work, education, and family building”,
Part 2, Journal of Labour Economics, Vol. 3 No. 1, pp. 351-96.
Levy, L., Carroll, B., Francoeur, J. and Logue, M. (2005), “The generational mirage? A pilot study
into the perceptions of leadership of Generations X and Y”, Hudson Global Resources,
Sydney.
Montana, P.J. and Lenaghan, J.A. (1999), “What motivates and matters most to Generations X
and Y?”, Journal of Career Planning and Employment, Vol. 59 No. 4, pp. 27-30.
Noble, S.M. and Schewe, C.D. (2003), “Cohort segmentation: an exploration of its validity”,
Journal of Business Research, Vol. 56 No. 12, pp. 979-87.
O’Guinn, T. and Shrum, L. (1997), “The role of television in the construction of social reality”,
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 23 No. 4, pp. 278-94.
Rhodes, S.R. (1983), “Age-related differences in work attitudes and behaviour: a review and
conceptual analysis”, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 93 No. 2, pp. 328-67.
Sheahan, P. (2006a), Generation Y: Thriving and Surviving with Generation Y at Work, Hardie
Grant, Melbourne.
Sheahan, P. (2006b), “Gen Y is more than just supply and demand”, Human Resources, Vol. 11
No. 3, pp. 6-7.
Smola, K.W. and Sutton, C.D. (2002), “Generational differences: revisiting generational work values
for the new millennium”, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 23, SP1, pp. 363-82.
Strauss, W. and Howe, N. (1991), Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069,
William Morrow & Co, New York, NY.
Twenge, J.M. (2000), “The age of anxiety? Birth cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism,
1952-1993”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 79 No. 6, pp. 1007-21.
Ad hoc reviewers
The guest editors would like to thank the following reviewers for their time and contribution to
this special issue.
Giles St J. Burch University of Auckland Business School.
Kerr Inkson Waikato University.
Ian Hunter University of Auckland Business School.
Joe Martocchio University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Nanette Monin Massey University.
Judith Pringle Auckland University of Technology.
Charlotte Sutton Auburn University.
Jean Twenge San Diego State University.
Corresponding author
Keith Macky can be contacted at: keith.macky@aut.ac.nz
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861
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