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Career Shift: From Peace ‘n Love to a Dog-Eat-Dog Job Market

February 12, 2012

Updated March 7, 2013

When the Occupy Movement’s battle lines were drawn, it wasn’t just the 99 per cent against the one. Another popular matchup was that of the baby boomers versus ‘the screwed generation.’ The only trouble with that one? It’s complete fiction.- The Ottawa Citizen (Headline to Robert Wright’s column Generation Lie)

There’s a lot of commentary out there on generational issues, and what’s helped spark this are the crappy labor market conditions in North America. When jobs are aplenty, people are happy. Just think back a few years ago to the rocket-fueled economy, where people naively believed that their houses would appreciate indefinitely, and that they could be used as ATMs. Everyone was singing Kumbaya.

Now that we’re into a continued slow and painful economic recovery, following the now infamous Great Recession, where young people entering the workforce face the new dog-eat-dog realities and older workers cling to their jobs in an effort to help out their young adult kids or because their pension plans were barbecued by corporate collapse, the topic of inter-generational conflict has garnered growing attention.

First off, the thin line between perception and reality when it comes to tensions between the generations tends to be get pushed to the former. Perception becomes reality.

Second, each new generation thinks it’s getting screwed by previous ones. When Baby Boomers were growing up during the Sixties and Seventies they hated the “Establishment,” believing that older people didn’t get it. Peace, Love and Rock ‘n Roll (plus lots of weed) would solve the world’s problems. My dad, a Scottish immigrant to Canada and born in 1917, had a big problem, as did his peers, trying to understand what was going on with young people. We were all dope heads in his eyes.

Each successive generation has unique issues. I’ve written one dozen posts on leadership and generational topics. Check some of them out here. In addition, you may find my ebook Leadership and the Intergenerational Divide of interest.

What’s been missing from much of the “generational conversation” in Canada and the United States is actual empirical evidence. Fortunately, a new Canadian study was recently released, and I’m glad to say that the authors provide some fascinating information. To my American friends, this study has relevant application to your country, so I would encourage you not to tune out this post.

Generational Career Shift is a collaborative effort by three universities, with the primary contact at the University of Guelph, Department of Business. The two other schools are Carleton University (Ottawa) and Dalhousie University (Halifax).

The survey was conducted of 3,000 Canadians spanning the following demographic cohorts:
1. Matures (born in 1945 or before)
2. Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)
3. Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979)
4. Generation Y (born in 1980 and afterwards)

The Summary Report of Key Findings report can be downloaded here.

The aim of the study was to capture major differences among the four generations on such topics as work priorities, career ambitions and work experience. I found the results quite interesting, though much of them were not surprising given my own knowledge of the subject. There were a few gems, however.

The term “Matures” is not one I’d heard before; I’ve used the more common Silent Generation, currently between 66 and 83. The Greatest Generation, coined by Tom Brokaw, covers those 84- plus. A small point, but one that differentiates between two age segments of elderly people who’ve had very difference life experiences.

One key point I want to make before sharing some of the survey’s key findings is that this was done in isolation of the economic turmoil that has prevailed since the spring of 2008. This means that the reader, especially someone wanting to incorporate the findings into business work practices, is responsible for positioning the findings in the context of the slow economic recovery, uncertainty in financial markets and escalating competition from emerging economies. This observation will become more apparent when you read the findings. But for now I’ll state that the generation needing a reality check is Gen Y.

So here we go!

1. Work Priorities
From a list of 25 work values, seven were shared by the four generations in their top ten:
• Interesting work
• Information
• Job security
• Salary
• Benefits
• Achievement
• Support supervisor

Of interest, workplace balance was in the top ten for Gen Y, Gen X and Baby Boomers. Hours of work were also in the top ten for Gens X and Y. And Gen Y was the only cohort that had advancement in its top ten, though Boomers expressed achievement as being very important. Oddly, the other three generations had using their abilities in their top ten. And the kicker was that only Boomers and Matures had continuous learning in their top ten.

Please excuse the editorial comment, but I was blown away with the continuous learning finding. Shocking in my view.

Each older generation placed less value on salary. While at first glance this would seem logical, I’d add the comment that older Boomers and some Matures are rethinking that idea because of the prolonged economic recovery and the statistic that some 40% of Gen Y are living at home, with most of them not contributing in a meaningful way to living expenses. In other words, the burden is being shared across generations, something this study does not address.

2. Career Expectations
The four generations held job security as the most important of their “career anchors” (defined as the overall reflection of an individual’s values, perceived abilities, motivations and needs). Lifestyle was seen equally high by Gens X and Y.

Service dedication to a cause, as an anchor, also viewed very important the four groups, especially Gen Y. In contrast, geographic security was held in lowest regard by the four, along with entrepreneurial creativity. The remaining anchors (autonomy, management competence, challenge and technical competence) roughly in the middle.

Matures placed a high degree of importance in their careers. Gen Y had inflated salary expectations, along with expecting to take an average of five years off work for child-rearing and travel. And of particular note, Gens X and Y expressed less willingness to “think beyond organizational walls.” This finding is most striking, considering that organizations are becoming increasingly virtual and external partnership-oriented.

3. Career Experiences
Gen Y had on average more than double the job changes per year compared to the other generations. And Gen X had more than Boomers and Matures. The study took into account the age differential from older workers, but as it stated: “…[Gen Y] made more of every type of career move per year than did the Gen Xers, who also made more of each move per year than Boomers or Matures.” (These moves covered job changes, promotions, laterals, organization changes, downward moves and track changes).

It’s interesting to probe into why people in the four generations experienced changes. For example, leaving a job for a promotion was the greatest category (63-65% among the four). Leaving a job because of the work environment was also high, especially among the Matures.

Taking a non-ideal job was also high, notably among Boomers.

At the low end of the scale were career changing factors such as extended family leave, reduced work hours or workload and extended leave for family. Surprisingly, Gen Y was more likely to have taken extended travel leave or relocated for a different lifestyle. As the study states: “Younger generations may be demonstrating greater self-reliance and values-driven career behaviours than the older generations.”

When it came to “Career Influencers,” those who affect one’s decisions, Boomers stated that their managers were less influential, in contrast to the other three groups. Gens X and Y were especially influenced by teachers, friends, mentors, family (except for parents) and role models.

4. Career Outcomes
Overall, younger generations were less satisfied with their careers’ achievements. Matures blew almost off the scale, with Boomers halfway between this oldest cohort and Gen X. Gen Y was far below. Another category, “personally meaningful work” resembled achievements, though slightly lower in general for the four age groups.

When it came to “reaching full potential,” Matures stood out from the much lower three younger groups; the same with “earning increases.” However, “social relationships” and “balancing work and life” showed very close clustering among the four.

Baby Boomers, perhaps not surprisingly, showed the greatest degree of interference with home responsibilities. Gen X expressed career interference with family responsibilities and personal interests. And Matures seemed very satisfied that they had very little interference when it came time to friends, family and leisure activities.

So there you have it – some very interesting distinctions between the perceptions and experiences across four generational cohorts that span some 55 years. If you haven’t already clicked on the link to download the free report I encourage you to do so, especially if you’re at all interested in the dynamics of society’s evolution and impacts on the workforce.

As I said earlier, this study was done in a controlled environment. The volatility of the economy, the labor market and globalization will continue to exert pressures on organizations in Canada and the United States. With that said, several of the findings and observations in the report should raise red flags, notably for Gen Y and to a lesser extent Gen X. I’ve said my piece; I’ll let you do your own reflections.

Before I sign off on this post, I have one last thing to share. One of the most insightful commentaries I’ve read on inter-generational issues appeared in the Ottawa Citizen in December, 2011. Robert Wright, a history professor at Trent University, wrote a guest article called Generation Lie. This commentary is a treat to read. Be sure to click on the link. JT

In the hyper-caffeinated late 1980s, somebody predicted that the 1990s would be the “leisure decade.” But as we all know, life in the wired, globalized, 24/7 world grows more and more frantic, and less and less human, with each passing year.
– Robert Wright


Photo: Saint John, New Brunswick. Jim chatting to some Silent Generation folks.


Intergen ebook cover with TextClick here to download my new complimentary e-book Leadership and the Inter-Generational Divide, 2nd Edition.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2012 6:03 pm

    Good point, Lynne. My dad, who was born in 1917, was fortunate in having a job for life. That was how it was. He and his peers didn’t face unemployment in the 50s, 60s nd 70s. Indeed, as someone once said of the Greatest Generation, all you needed was a pulse to find a job.

  2. February 12, 2012 5:22 pm

    Regarding the Matures having reached their full potential, this would be logical given their age. I think if you interview Baby Boomers in 20-30 years, you will find the same. Also, my father (currently in The Greatest Generation, born in 1929) told me often that he was lucky to come of age when he did. He said there were very few in his age group and they all got good job offers when they got into their 20s.

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