Study Suggests Age is Not Enough to Predict Worker Needs

April 10, 2009
A new work force study indicates that employees’ own assessments of their workplace experience can differ significantly depending upon their age, career-stage, job tenure or dependent care status. Business policies designed to keep and engage workers based only on assumptions of employees’ age may therefore miss the mark.

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 study examined similarities and differences in employees' perceptions of their work across ages/generations, career stages, life stages and job tenure.

For example, data from the 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," said Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Ph.D., study principal and head 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 Yers/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."

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