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Sloan Center News

Think Age is Enough to Predict Worker Needs? Think Again

national study of multi-generation workers bends prism of age

9 April 2009 - Business policies to keep and engage good workers often are based on assumptions of employees’ age.  But they may miss the mark. 

Employees’ own assessments of their workplace experience can differ significantly depending upon their age, career-stage, job tenure, or dependent care status, a new workforce study says. The report, “Age & Generations: Understanding Experiences at the Work Place,” is part of the 2007-2008 national Age & Generations Study conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

More than 2,200 employees ages 17 to 81 participated in the survey, representing nine organizations across the nation from a range of industry sectors. The Age & Generations Study looked at similarities and differences in employees’ perceptions of their work across ages/generations, career stages, life stages, and job tenure.  For example, data from the Age & Generations Study suggests that the span of ages within different career-stages is quite large. The ages of those who reported being at early-career ranged from age 17 to 61 years; mid-career, from 22 to 62 years; and late-career, from 28 to 81 years.  

Among other findings, the survey showed that the group of workers age 53 to 61—older “Baby Boomers”— perceived significantly less supervisor support than did workers ages 27 to 52 (“Generation Xers” and younger “Boomers”).  When asked the extent to which they felt supported by their supervisors, including support for attempts to acquire additional training to further their career, mid-and late-career workers gave their bosses lower scores on average than early-career workers. Mid-career employees perceived greater access to flexible work options than did early- or late-career employees.

“From a talent perspective, only the fittest organizations will survive this economic downturn,” says Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD, study principal and Director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. “Smart companies will align their workplace policies with the needs of a multi-generational, 21st century workforce,” she said. “Supervisors should make sure their policies not only retain talent but facilitate workers’ desire to keep growing. Offering tailor-made support to workers of all ages and career stages can help assure a workforce that is nimble, engaged, and ready to respond to the changing demands of our hyper-turbulent environment.”

Other study highlights include:

  • Workers age 35 and younger were less likely to say their work was full of meaning and purpose than workers ages 43 and older.
  • Workers who had eldercare responsibility (but no child care responsibilities), felt less secure in their jobs than those who had childcare responsibilities (but no eldercare responsibilities).
  • 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).
  • Employees in mid-career felt they had greater access to the flexible work options they needed to fulfill their work and personal needs, than early-career workers.
  • Those in the “sandwich” generation (caring for children and elders) were less likely to feel included in their work groups than employees just providing childcare and employees not providing dependent care at all.
  • Those with the least amount of job tenure (0-3 years) felt more supported by their supervisors, that their supervisors were more effective, and that they had greater access to learning and development opportunities than those with more than 3 years on the job.

“Now is not the time to create a lost generation of workers,” said Kathy Lynch, Director of Employer Engagement at the Center and workplace lead for the Age & Generations Study. “Talent management is key because good workers of every age are valuable. To keep them, it’s important to focus on where they are in their life stages, and give them as much personalized support for their individual needs as possible.” “One size does not fit all. The question is, when businesses resurface on the other side of the economic downturn, will they be ready?”

The Age & Generations Study was funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Read the report here »