February 6: Prof. Lyons Researches Inter-Generational Differences in the Workplace | Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics

February 6: Prof. Lyons Researches Inter-Generational Differences in the Workplace

Posted on Monday, February 6th, 2012

Department of Business Prof. Sean Lyons first became interested in inter-generational differences and their impact on workplace dynamics as a grad student. He realized that people are a product of the generation into which they were born and their career decisions are based on the unique opportunities available to them at that time and place in history.

“Oprah, for example,” Lyons said, “wouldn’t have known the kind of career success she has achieved had she been born a generation earlier. We’re connected with history in a way.”

With the help of a $158,000 SSHRC grant, Lyons launched a 3-year study in 2008 that surveyed over 3000 Canadians to learn more about career related differences among the four generations of workers in today’s workplace. The results were published in “Summary Report of Key Findings” in November 2011. Six peer-reviewed journal articles based on the study's results are currently in review and more are in preparation.

The four distinct generational groupings are commonly known as: Matures (born in 1945 or earlier); Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964); Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979); and Millennials (born in 1980 or later).

Lyons, a “Gen Xer”, identified inter-generational differences in the workplace in these four areas: priorities, attitudes, experiences and satisfaction.

Workplace Priorities
Lyons found that Millennials, the youngest, most idealistic and self-absorbed generation, prioritized workplace characteristics that lead to self-improvement as well as social aspects of work. For example, Millennials claimed advancement is one of their top 10 priorities whereas the other generational groups did not. In contrast Gen Xers, who are more likely to be juggling careers and young families, emphasized the need to find work/life balance. Boomers and Matures prioritized the need to stay relevant in work environments that are ever-changing as they embrace new technologies.

Career Attitudes
Attitudes about careers also emerged as a significant difference between the generations. For example, Matures, who have been in the workplace longer, derived their identifies from their careers more than the other generations. Naturally, Millennials, who have the least work experience, expressed lower levels of self-efficacy. Also, research indicates that each successively younger generation places greater importance on autonomy, independence, entrepreneurial creativity, lifestyle, service and dedication while simultaneously indicating high expectations for salary growth.

Career Experiences
Lyons’ most interesting finding is how many career moves the youngest generation are making. On average Millennials make .7 job changes and career moves per year (in all directions: downward, lateral, upward, and organizational changes)—more than any of the other generations. This generation is not hard-wired to make a lot of career moves but they do. It seems that they feel compelled to change jobs as the only option to advancement due to a lack of internal opportunities. This has implications for employers who must focus more on retaining employees.

Career Satisfaction
Lyons’ research indicates that Matures experienced a greater degree of met expectations and satisfaction with accomplishments than the other generations in various categories such as salary increases, advancements, recognition, personally meaningful work, and reaching full career potential. Millennials, on the other hand, have the lowest degree of work satisfaction.

A telling example is that while Millennials’ first year salaries are on average $48,860 for men and $42,060 for women, this generation expects a significant increase in pay over the first five years of their careers to $84,868 for men (up 74%) and $67,766 for women (up 61%). However, as Lyons points out in his report, salary increases in Canada in 2010 and 2011 were under 3%. The discrepancy between expectation and reality in this and other areas leaves Millennials feeling disenfranchised. They seem to feel that they were deceived by a system that fed them incomplete and inaccurate information.

Lyons says that, “While at first Millennials respond to the facts as if they’re being told Santa isn’t real, a good straight talk usually helps them to adjust well enough.”

When not researching or teaching, Prof. Lyons frequently speaks to private, public and not-for-profit organizations about how careers are shifting in Canada.

By Brenda L. Murray


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