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Age & Generations Study

The Age & Generations Study conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College was designed and implemented to gather new, practical information about contemporary multi-generational work teams. Specifically, the Study examined the extent to which diversity—with respect to age/generation, life-stage events, career-stage, and tenure—influences employees’ experiences at work.

The Study was conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College between November 2007 and September 2008 (Time 1: November 2007 to March 2008; Time 2: May 2008 to September 2008). The Center collaborated with 9 U.S. workplaces (12 departments) on this study. Data was collected using surveys, most of which were completed online, though some employees used written questionnaires. Employees were asked a series of questions about the following topics: employees’ perceptions of their work, organization/department as a whole, work group, supervisor/team leader, work style, and outlook on life. In total, approximately 2,210 employees participated in Time 1 and 1,300 in Time 2.

publications

key research questions
  • Is it important for employers to consider age/generation, life course, career-stage, and tenure in understanding the employment experiences of their workers?
  • Are there relationships between age-related factors and employees’ experiences as team members?
  • If we use different age-related markers to examine employees’ reports of their work experiences, do we gain a deeper understanding about the quality of their employment?
selected findings & implications

Recent Analyses—The Effect of the Economic Downturn (Perceptions Pre-Downturn and Post)

Analyses revealed that, overall, after the onset of the economic downturn employees perceived:

  • A decrease in their job security.
  • A drop in supervisor support.
  • An increase in work overload.
  • A decrease in feelings of inclusion.
  • A decrease in job quality.
  • No change in perceptions of the effectiveness of work teams.

When we examined whether these effects differed by age or changes in perceptions of job security, we found that after the onset of the economic downturn:

  • The extent of the decrease in engagement scores became smaller with each successive age group.
  • The extent of change in the measures of job security, supervisor support, work overload, inclusion, and job quality stayed relatively constant across age groups.
  • Perceptions of engagement, supervisor support, inclusion, and job quality declined for employees who felt that their job security had decreased, but it stayed the same or only slightly declined for those whose job security had stayed the same or increased.
  • Those who felt that their job security decreased or stayed the same before and after the onset of the downturn experienced a slight increase in work overload during this time period, whereas those whose job security increased experienced a slight decline in their perceptions of work overload.
  • In terms of perceptions of team effectiveness, those who felt that their job security decreased perceived a slight decrease in team effectiveness before and after the onset of the downturn, whereas those whose job security increased perceived a slight increase in their perceptions of team effectiveness. Those whose job security stayed the same, however, did not perceive an increase or decrease in work team effectiveness.

Finally, we assessed whether the extent to which employee perceptions changed after the onset of the economic crisis varied both by age and by changes in employee perceptions of their job security (To make this a little simpler, we organized the employees into just two age groups: those under age 50 and those aged 50 or older):

  • Among those under age 50 whose job security increased, perceptions of team effectiveness also increased before and after the onset of the downturn. But, for those under the age of 50 whose job security decreased or stayed the same, perceptions of team effectiveness decreased. In contrast, among those aged 50 and over, those whose job security increased perceived a decrease in the effectiveness of their work team; however, those whose job security decreased or stayed the same perceived that the effectiveness of their work team remained pretty stable between the two data collection periods.
  • We did not find that the patterns of change in employee engagement, supervisor support, work overload, inclusion, or job quality were different when we considered the job security circumstances of those under the age of 50 and those who were 50 years of age and older.

Previous Analyses—Age, Generation, Career Stage, Life-Stage

  • The relationships among these four different ways to look at our lives (age/generation, life course, career-stage, and tenure) can vary considerably from individual to individual. For example, the span of ages within different career-stages is quite large. The ages of those who reported that they were in early-career ranged from age 17 to 61 years; mid-career, from 22 to 62 years; and late-career, from 28 to 81 years.
  • Generation Y’ers/Millennials (those age 26 or under) experienced less work overload than employees in Generation X (ages 27-42) and the Baby Boomers (ages 43-61).
  • Older Baby Boomers (age 53-61) were less likely to perceive their supervisors as supportive and effective than those in the Younger Generation X group (ages 27 to 35).
  • Early-career employees experienced less work overload than mid- or late-career employees.
  • Mid-career employees perceived greater access to flexible work options than did early- or late-career employees.
  • Early-career employees were more likely to perceive their supervisors as supportive than mid- or late-career employees.
  • Employees with eldercare responsibilities (but no children under the age of 18) felt less secure in their jobs than those with children under the age of 18 (but no eldercare responsibilities).
  • Employees with eldercare responsibilities (but not children under the age of 18) felt that they had less access to flexibility then those with children under the age of 18 (but no eldercare) and those not providing any dependent care.
  • Employees with no dependent care responsibilities were more satisfied with their benefits than those with children under the age of 18 (but no eldercare responsibilities).
  • Those with 3.01-10 years of tenure felt less included in their team than those with 0-3 years or 10.01 or more years of tenure.
  • Those 0-3 years of tenure felt more supported by their supervisor and felt that their supervisors were more effective than those with 3.01 or more years of tenure.
  • Those with the least amount of tenure (0-3 years) perceived that they had greater access to learning and development opportunities than those with 3.01 or more years of tenure.

Implications for Employers

  • Although most workplace-based resources – such as flexible work options – are available to all employees (regardless of age), employees of different ages might access or experience those resources in different ways. Therefore, employers might find it helpful to examine the extent to which their policies and programs are, in reality, age-neutral.
  • It is important to keep in mind that employees of ALL ages might: be early-, mid-, or late-career workers; have tenure that ranges significantly; and may or may not have responsibilities for dependent care.
  • Employees’ assessments of their employment experiences are different when you examine them through multiple age-related lenses. Therefore, employers will find it useful to consider age-related factors (such as career-stage, tenure, and life course experiences) as well as chronological age (or generations that mark age groups) when they gather information about their employees’ experiences at the workplace.
context/background

For much of the 20th century, age was used as an indicator of the “seasons of our lives,” in part because it seemed that, for many of us, our lives unfolded in a way that (more or less) appeared to correspond with age. But, if you think for a minute about your own life and the lives of others you know, is chronological age alone a reliable indicator of your experiences? Doubtfully.

Several major changes have occurred that make chronological age an unreliable indicator of individual’s experiences with regard to work and life:

  • Life course events and transitions such as education completion, career entry and exit, marriage, family formation, divorce, and retirement are tied less and less to chronological age than they were in the past.
  • Such events/transitions are more continuous and multi-directional than they used to be.
  • Life trajectories with regard to these various events/transitions are interdependent upon each other and may develop simultaneously and reciprocally within and across individual lives1.

When examining our workforce, we must examine employees’ perceptions of their employment experiences through multiple age-related lenses including, but not limited to:

  • Chronological Age/Generations:
    Chronological age is often used as proxy measure for age-related individual human development (physical, social, emotional, cognitive). The term generation (typically defined using a chronological age cut-off) refers to population groups of people who are approximately the same age. Key societal experiences (such as economic circumstances, historical events, and dominant cultural values) have the potential to affect enduring ways that a majority of the members of these groups view the world and make meaning out of their experiences.
  • Life Stage:
    Life Stage refers to important transitional experiences that shape major life roles (often indicated by markers of life events and transitions, such as marriage or the birth of children, which connect us to our social world).
  • Career-Stage:
    The career-stage designation is a way of thinking about experiences that mark the accumulation of knowledge, competencies, skills and social capital related to a particular type of career or line of work. While career progression might seem more or less clear for some occupations and professions, it is not for others. Furthermore, if an employee has made a career change or has taken some time out from the workforce, they might feel that they are actually in an earlier career-stage than they had been in the past.
  • Tenure:
    Tenure refers the number of years that an employee has been with a particular employer (or, in some cases, the number of years the person has been in a particular job). Tenure is, of course, often related to career-stage and age. In contrast to the age-related factors discussed above (which are descriptors of the individual employee), tenure is a measure of the relationship between the individual and the organization.

   

age & generations study team

For more information on Age & Generations Study, or to schedule a conversation with any of the Center's team, please contact:
617-552-9195 | agework@bc.edu

primary investigators

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Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD
Director
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Professor
Graduate School of Social Work & Caroll School of Management, Boston College
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research team

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Elyssa Besen, PhD
Research Scientist
Center for Disability Research, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety
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Melissa Brown, MSW, PhD
Adjunct Faculty
Graduate School of Social Work, Boston College
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Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Co-Director of Research, Primary Data Studies
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Research Professor
Lynch School of Education, Boston College
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Kathy Lynch, MBA

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Christina Matz-Costa, MSW, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Assistant Professor
Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College
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ariane

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, PhD
Professor of Management
Université du Québec à Montréal

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Jennifer Swanberg, PhD
Associate Professor of Social Work
College of Social Work, Colleges of Medicine and Public Health, University of Kentucky
Executive Director
Institute for Workplace Innovation, University of Kentucky
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Monique Valcour, PhD
Professor of Management
EDHEC Business School, France.
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1 O’Rand, A.M. & Campbell, R.T. (1999). On reestablishing the phenomenon and specifying ignorance: Theory development and research design in aging. In V.L. Bengtson, & K.W. Schaie, Handbook of Theories of Aging (pp. 59-78). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.