SAARBRUCKEN, Germany — Does this mean we can’t say “OK, Boomer” anymore? Contrary to popular belief and numerous clichés, a new study finds attitudes towards work and career are not significantly different across generations. A researcher from Saarland University says this finding challenges the common narrative that paints millennials as unwilling to work hard, and the perceived strong work ethic of baby boomers and other generations.
Study author Martin Schröder, a professor of sociology at Saarland University, embarked on this research after a publisher proposed a lucrative book deal, asking him to demonstrate that millennials have a different work ethic than older generations. However, after analyzing hundreds of thousands of datasets spanning four decades, Schröder discovered some unexpected results.
This suggests that the stereotypes about millennials, as well as boomers, are largely clichés without empirical backing. The research showed that the perceived differences in work attitudes among generations, from baby boomers to Gen Z, are not as pronounced as commonly thought.
“Of course, as with all clichés there’s a grain of truth in them, but when you take a closer look, the differences between the generations are not really that great at all,” explains Schröder. “What turns out to be important is which stage of life people are in when they are asked about their work ethic or their attitude to work.”
Schröder explains that the generational hypothesis, which suggests that attitudes are influenced by birth year, is overshadowed by “age effects” and “period effects” when these are taken into account.
Schröder used data from almost 600,000 individuals from the Integrated Values Survey, which surveyed people in 113 countries between 1981 and 2022. This data covered various aspects of work and career attitudes, including motivation and the importance of factors such as leisure time, work hours, and job satisfaction. The key finding was that the generational cohort had little to no effect on the responses.
Three reasons, according to Schröder, contribute to the persistence of the generational myth in the workplace. First, younger individuals have always shown less willingness to work than middle-aged workers, and overall, work is now seen as less important than in the past.
“If we’re not careful, we end up using unsupported generalizations that have no foundation in reality,” says Schröder.
Lastly, the livelihood of some “youth researchers” and “generational gurus” relies on promoting generational differences, despite contrary scientific evidence.
“The third reason why we tend to assume generational effects, where there really are none, is that for some people this claim is the basis for their livelihood,” Schröder points out.
Schröder’s findings indicate that distinguishing between generations in terms of work attitudes might not only be unnecessary but also misleading.
“Anyone who shows that it makes no sense to distinguish between generations is obviously not going to profit from that financially. It’s the sort of finding that requires a deep dive into the data, usually by a university professor,” jokes Schröder.
The study is published in the Journal of Business and Psychology.
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